Harnessing the Velocity of Change

When leaders talk about change, they often will invoke the words of Charles Darwin to illustrate their point: “It is not the strongest nor the most intelligent of the species that survives. It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.”

While the quote—and its numerous variations—is regularly attributed to Darwin and On the Origin of Species, these actual words were neither said nor written by the great naturalist. In truth, this perspective on survival and change should rightly be credited to Leon C. Megginson, a business professor at Louisiana State University, who paraphrased Darwin’s ideology in a speech about economics presented at a management conference in 1963.

It’s fitting that one of the most misquoted concepts of Darwinian survival was, in fact, created by a business leader rather than by a scientist. After all, while evolutionary change in nature can be slow and methodical, change in business is frequently fast and sometimes feels chaotic.

Regardless of its origin, though, Megginson’s aphorism still holds true and enjoys wide circulation and usage among many who serve in leadership positions more than a half century after it was first coined. The reason? The quote serves as a cogent reminder to organizations that navigating through change can’t be accomplished simply through brute force or smarts. It may seem counterintuitive, but the reality is that adaptability often (if not always) trumps strength and intelligence, whether in the evolution of species or the evolution of businesses.

Capitalize on Technological Advances

Beyond adaptability, speed also plays a critical role in survival. As with Moore’s Law, technological advancements continue to accelerate at an exponential rate, greatly impacting the velocity of change within organizations. There’s no denying that healthcare communication is living through an era of massive change—and ensuring that organizations capitalize on opportunities inherent in change, rather than simply struggling through challenges, requires an adaptable, focused, and clear-eyed approach to change leadership.

I’ve had my fair share of experience leading our organization through periods of change. When we formed Publicis Health in 2003, the organization was a fragmented assembly of more than 70 healthcare communications agency brands accumulated through mergers and acquisitions over the previous decade. To say that we were a loosely held confederation of competing businesses is to put it too nicely.

In 2003, we possessed great strength due to our size to scale our worldwide talent base. But we lacked focus, agility, and a unifying vision. Indeed, the connective tissue that was meant to pull us together was still nascent. Back then, our portfolio of businesses was a patchwork of overlapping and sometimes redundant capabilities and services with a weak, inefficient center. Our bones were strong, but it would take time and exercise to get our core and our muscles to hold us together and to work properly in a coordinated manner.

Much has changed at Publicis Health since the early days. During the intervening years, we’ve consolidated agency brands into a more coherent and collaborative collection of businesses that represent best-in-breed capabilities powered by world-class talent. By allowing our agency brands to focus on each of their own strengths and positionings—whether it’s digital transformation, data and insights, scientific storytelling, or sales and marketing—we’ve been able to create a strong network of agencies that works in concert—instead of strictly in competition—with each other.

Evolve with the Changing Industry

While much of our existing business is derived through our relationships with brand management, marketing, and sales leadership, we understand that as the industry evolves, so too, must we. Which means we will continue to adapt and expand our base to include relationships with R&D, information technology (IT), and the C-suite.

The great value of hindsight is that it provides much-needed perspective on where you’ve been, but hindsight also offers great insights into who you’ve become. As we head into the next decade of our ongoing evolution, the lessons that we’ve learned over the past 15 years serve as useful guidance for how we can continue to adapt and thrive in an environment of transformation and change.

With Publicis Health as a case in point, these are three key drivers that helped us adapt and thrive through change leadership:

1. Communications

Perhaps the greatest challenge within change is fear of the unknown. It’s human nature to be wary of things that are unknowable, and while organizational change can be disruptive and uncertain, whatever fear may exist can be mitigated by a thoughtfully crafted and well-executed communications plan.

At Publicis Health, communications—especially internal employee communications—isn’t an afterthought—it plays a business critical role. Starting from each employee’s first day on the job, our vision, values, and ideals are communicated by executive leadership and line managers alike to ensure that there is no doubt what we are collectively trying to achieve.

Communicating with clarity and consistency can mean the difference between empowering champions within your organization or breeding doubt and suspicion through silence. Communicating as early as possible, and with frequency, has helped us to be focused and transparent with our teams.

2. Collaboration

Retired U.S. Army General Eric Shinseki famously said, “If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less.” The same could be said about collaboration. Those who don’t like collaborating will find themselves quickly sidelined.

In networked organizations like ours, it can be easy to default to protecting only the interests of your agency brand. That’s why we instituted a balanced scorecard whereby individual business units receive recognition and rewards for supporting business mobility and staff mobility among sister agencies. We fundamentally believe that when one Publicis Health business succeeds, we all do.

Collaboration requires trust and a leap of faith, but it’s essential to leading organizations through change. The reality is that when organizations go on a journey of change, not everyone will complete the journey, and that’s okay.

3. Commitment

People don’t work for companies; people work for people. Which is why consistently demonstrating commitment is critical to ensure that teams understand what’s at stake and know what they are collectively working toward. Commitment requires bravery and focus, and sometimes, decisive actions can be disruptive during times of change. But when leaders show their commitment—to people, to ideas, to work—the ownership of change can be had by everyone.

There is no more powerful tool for a leader than role-modeling the behavior they seek from others. Facing change yourself gives the organization the best chance to face it, too.

Opportunities abound in periods of change. Although it’s always easiest to clearly see those opportunities in retrospect, if you remain adaptable and approach change with an open mind and an open heart, it’s easier to uncover many of the opportunities that may be hidden to those closed to looking out and ahead. Attitude does determine altitude, especially when change abounds!

7 Tips to Navigate a Changing Organization and Showcase Leadership Capabilities

Change is never easy, but with a focused approach and direction, managers can help to steady the ship from the inside out. Leading from the top down is the most important, but what shouldn’t be overlooked: How managers at all levels can embody change and exemplify leadership.

1. Create the Message

A one-size-fits-all approach no longer works for every organization. Define what works and how it is going to address the bottom line and future health of the company. Internal stakeholders are your first line of defense and change always starts from within, so allocate appropriate resources.

2. Make a Plan

Develop an overall communications plan that is ongoing throughout the life of the project and can be adapted quickly to keep the organization in the moment and ahead of the game.

3. Adapt as Needed

Organizational change is a big process and it is important to remember that you may have to adapt along the way, whether it be continuing to innovate, staffing, or technological advancements. Don’t be afraid to step back and reassess as needed.

4. Support the Change

Support comes from the top, and every activity must be supported through this lens. Additionally, new initiatives should ladder up to the change.

5. Communicate Early and Often

Create a consistent message regarding workplace change according to what is in it for the business as well as for workers. Maintain fluid communication that is open, honest, and respectful.

6. Demonstrate Commitment

Change can be difficult to implement—and carrying it out is not an easy task. But if you immerse yourself in the commitment to change it, and live true to it, your attitude will be infectious.

7. Measure Results

Measurable results are incredibly important and provide key pieces of feedback. They allow you to reevaluate and course correct as needed.

  • Nick Colucci

    Nick Colucci is CEO at Publicis Health. Nick heads Publicis Health, the world’s premier health and wellness communications network. Publicis Health’s vision is to be the indispensable force in health and wellness business transformation through the alchemy of creativity and technology—for good.


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