Embrace the opportunities that an uncertain future offers

March 30, 2009
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“Change” has been identified as necessary if we are to recover from our dismal global economic conditions. I think any sane individual would agree that doing things the way they’ve always been done does not initiate change. I question, however, if seeking resolution necessitates the revolution that seems to be lurking just beyond the horizon.

Our country is in the process of transforming itself from being the global manufacturing leader to a leader in the development of advanced technology, its application within the industrial process and in the incubation of ideas. Education, once a privilege, has become a necessity. To secure work within our changing world, people must develop a diverse knowledge base that can be stretched and adapted to fit our fluid society. Life-long learning has become practical reality for those hoping to advance in (or even retain) their job.

Businesses once able to thrive by servicing local markets must now compete on an international stage. Organizations now considering change are a bit late in their transformation, having been left behind by more proactive peers. As an acknowledgement that change is necessary, we must intentionally move forward toward new opportunity or be left behind to pick up the pieces of "life as we knew it."

The only way an individual will thrive is by learning to accept the previously unacceptable — to innovate rather than find comfort in what always was (because it may never again be). We once sought knowledge so we could perform a job by applying our "learning" to known, well-defined situations. We must now learn to think (rather than simply thinking that we can "do as expected") within an ever-changing world.

Our educational institutions must reinvent themselves to meet this expectation, making sure that students grasp core concepts and how they are applied rather than memorizing answers to questions that may never be asked. (If we continue to teach only the answers, who will know what questions to ask once the teachers are gone?) We must move away from rewarding effort toward recognizing accomplishment.

Lost in the call for change is the definition of reality. What lies ahead for us — both as citizens of this country and employees/employers within Michigan? Is the light at the end of the tunnel one of hope or is it one of unavoidable disaster?

The easiest way to prepare for the future has always been through a study of the past in an effort to avoid the repetition of mistakes. Perhaps we have come to the point where we must actively seek what hasn’t yet been tried to resolve situations that haven’t before been experienced. In order to initiate change we must look back just long enough to acknowledge shortcomings, analyze why actions may (or may not) have created desired outcomes, then move forward, understanding yesterday’s mistakes should be no more than tomorrow’s memories (rather than a predictor of future action).

Michigan is transforming itself into a globally competitive leader by doing what we always do: innovating, creating and recognizing opportunity. Embracing the opportunities that an uncertain future offers is much more productive than worrying about things we cannot control or obsessing over change that is going to happen with or without us.

If we study history to identify how change happens, we find that individuals either embrace the opportunity of a new tomorrow by consciously (and intentionally) leaving behind what is not working as they seek what might work, or they are swept up in someone else’s vision without thinking about its ramifications. Personally, I think that the former reason tends to produce long-lasting resolution while the latter could lead to bitter revolution.

Change, while necessary, should not become our focus. Focus instead upon the process of change. How can we move forward from where we are to where we must be (without finding comfort and solace in where we’ve been)? Think about what might be rather than what won’t work. Elevate individuals to a level of equality rather than seeking ways to “meet in the middle,” taking from those that “have” and giving it to those that need. Instead, we should provide for those “who do not have” by teaching them to fish, rather than by “redistributing” someone else’s catch. 

We must strengthen teams by insuring there is competent leadership within each group — leadership that will drive it toward a common goal by motivating its members toward a common conclusion in an ethical manner — rather than trying to make everyone equal. The reality is that everyone is not equal. We all have different gifts and must be provided with the opportunity to embrace how our diverse individual perspectives can contribute to the accomplishments of the whole.

David J. Smith is president and CEO of The Employers’ Association, a not-for-profit provider of human resource solutions since 1939.

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