Interview with Erich R. Bühler conducted by Renata Puszkiel

You have been accompanying various organizations across the globe during the transformations towards business agility. What do you find so exciting about the change that you decided to choose such a career?

Let me go back in time… my first job was in a software company back in Uruguay in 1994. During the first years of my career, I started realizing that change was hard. The more you invest in trying to change an organization and the ways that people work, the more you need to consider new paradigms and foundations. And helping people and creating new foundations have been my main motivators.

When individuals learn something new in the company, they are not just happy to apply those ideas there but they also take them back home and use them in their private lives. That is why we have to be responsible. Responsibility is not just about knowing that something is going to work or not in the organization, but about trying to understand how it will influence a person and might positively change their life.

It does not mean that we do life coaching, we are not prepared for that. It means that we are responsible and we try to make sure that we understand the impact on individuals, what their fears are, how organizational health helps develop them, and how we can create a better company.

I have been helping change companies for more than 30 years and this is basically what has been motivating… helping people and companies succeed sustainably.

Fot. Erich R. Bühler archives

Which set of skills should a change consultant have in order to be successful in his role?

If we go back to the literature, they always mention that you should focus on two things, which are hard skills and soft skills. Frameworks, methodologies, empathy, negotiation, etc.

This can be a little bit tricky as, for example, negotiation is something that is classified as a soft skill. However, the techniques used for negotiation are mostly mechanical. If you have a certain scenario, then you can apply a certain technique; if you have another scenario, you do something else, etc. It is not always like that, but I think it helps develop the idea.

In general, I try to talk about mechanical and emotional skills. Mechanical skills, the first part of the quadrant [Fig. 1] are frameworks or practices, or anything that you can learn by heart and almost ready to apply, like a framework or a methodology or practice (Scrum, SAFe, or Cost of Delay, etc.). 

More traditional companies place mainly the focus on this part of the quadrant as a recipe for success. The second part of the quadrant, that any change consultant should master, is emotional skills. Emotional skills are knowledge, attitudes, and skills that help you understand how to positively influence your emotions and the emotions of others. This includes the way we communicate, how we can empathize with others, how we deal with difficult situations, and how we help people that feel overwhelmed by the speed of change to becoming more comfortable. So, it is all about emotional management. For some individuals, these skills come naturally, but for others, it takes a lot of effort and dedication.

Fot. Magdalena Hajost Figure 1: Four key areas that can help a change consultant succeed
Source: Erich R. Bühler, Leading Exponential Change

There is also an important concept that impacts emotions and that is accelerated change. Companies are speeding up as a result of many different aspects such as artificial intelligence, short work cycles, big data, or unexpected events. This produces more and more market disruptions and can also increase internal conflict and make some behaviors apparent, such as employees “fighting” for scarce skills and other resources. 

Markets are evolving faster but people are not physiologically prepared to embrace accelerated change. That is why emotional skills are very important – they help people deal with all this. 

From my perspective, two crucial areas in this quadrant that can help find solutions are located at the bottom. These are mental agility and organizational health and are comprehensive parts of my book and theories.

Fot. Erich R. Bühler archives

You have already mentioned that the markets are changing very rapidly. At the same time, you are saying that human beings are not prepared for such accelerated changes. How can this issue be tackled?

Well, the first thing we have to understand is that many of the practices we have been using in firms for years are great and might work fine but, at the time of exposing people to accelerated change, these concepts somehow might not be offering the results we expect. 

For example, the idea of constantly reflecting on work and people’s interactions is a great practice to follow and I would suggest it in any company. Now, what happens if a person is exposed to a market that is exponentially changing all the time? 

If we try to, let’s say, influence a group of people to keep reflecting more and more on what is happening, at some point, they are going to feel tired and give up or just start following procedures. Many practices, like continuous improvement, are good, but we also have to consider that individuals are restricted to a certain amount of information and also the number of concurrent changes. 

When we are talking about trying to help a group of individuals to adapt to new situations and feel comfortable with continuous change, I think it’s necessary to embrace the idea of mental agility that I develop in my book. 

Mental agility is for me the capacity for a person to be able to adapt to a new situation by actively embracing new values and perspectives from others. Let me give you an example. Imagine that in the company you have been working for months on a product, and when you are just about to release it, another firm releases a better product than yours. How would you feel about it? Well, you will experience very high emotional stakes. You are going to feel disappointed, you are going to feel that maybe it was not worth working that hard. Many things are going to happen inside you that finally will place you in a specific state of mind. I believe that in a company where employees do not have higher levels of mental agility, they will not be able to cope with the exponential pace of change. 

For me, mental agility is the capacity for a person to be able to temporarily embrace new values and perspectives. It is not just about empathizing. Empathizing is when you just see the perspective from another’s point of view. Mental agility is also about temporarily embracing their values as if they were yours. 

Fot. Erich R. Bühler archives

Let me give you another example… I do not agree with a specific politician from the US… I believe in diversity and he doesn’t. For me, it is going to be very difficult to embrace his perspectives and values. When we are talking about mental agility, it means that you should be able to embrace – at least for a few minutes those values. They might be against yours. 

In my book, I explain several exercises called reframing to improve this. When we are able to temporarily be in a situation that has different values or a different perspective, we increase something called neuroplasticity, which is how your neurons connect. Reframing is a powerful set of cognitive techniques that allow us to analyze a problem from different perspectives, guiding people to temporarily think as the person with the problem or from the perspectives of those who observe the problem, or even the individuals who don’t believe there is a problem. This makes it possible to reach different conclusions and evaluate different assumptions. Reframing is also important if you are going through a difficult situation as it helps regulate emotions and diminish conflict. And this is crucial in the exponential organization.

The more a person can temporarily be in a different frame, the more flexible he or she becomes. And this increases neuroplasticity. I believe that in companies where employees do not have high levels of mental agility, they will struggle with change and innovation.

I also explain additional techniques for this, but nothing is going to work well if the fourth part of the quadrant is not in place: good organizational health.

From my perspective, organizational health is psychological safety – how people feel about talking freely and making decisions in the company – plus the creation of sustainable business value in perpetuity. Human beings can only be prepared for exponential change if they have higher levels of mental agility and great organizational health.

Fot. Erich R. Bühler archives

The pandemic made us aware of the fact that agility cannot be ignored anymore. Do you think that currently, people have become more adaptable and comfortable in dealing with constant change?

I’ve been talking about these in one of my workshops recently. My perspective is different than the ones of other consultants and I will explain why. In the center of our brain, we have something called the amygdala. The amygdala is very tiny and it is basically in charge of regulating emotions and emotional memories. When we are exposed to experiences that make us feel not that safe, the amygdala activates and prepares us for fight or flight. This means a situation that can be dangerous for you. Clearly, this tiny part of the brain tries to protect you. 

Imagine that you are at home, you open your house’s main door and you see a big lion. Probably if you start thinking: okay, let’s measure the size of the lion, let’s see if she has a size that is going to hurt me, let’s analyze a good strategy to confront her… at the time you made all these decisions, you are probably dead. 

The body has a mechanism for dangerous situations. It activates in situations of fear and floods your brain with different hormones, and prepares you for war. How does it work? Well, it disables a part of your brain which is called the prefrontal cortex. This is your intelligent mind and the one that you use when you need to come up with very sophisticated or logical ideas. This makes you behave as if you were a monkey but has the advantage that helps you react quickly. 

We also know by many pieces of research that when we are exposed to situations of fear, we become less flexible to continuous change. When a person feels that he or she is going to lose prestige, their role or position in a company, the amygdala ignites very aggressively.

During the pandemic, I can see behaviors in people that denote higher activation of the amygdala, which means that it is constantly releasing these hormones into their brain. 

The first thing we should consider is that on the day people come back to the physical office, or even if they are virtual, many of them are going to be afraid of their positions, roles, or the near future. So, trying to make some pressure on people to adapt faster can be tricky. 

In my opinion, the first thing I suggest to do is to focus on the fourth part of the quadrant: organizational health.

People have been forced to change their private lives during this pandemic. This does not mean that when they come back to the organization they will be as flexible as before, it all depends on the support they experience from your company. 

As long as leaders provide higher levels of organizational health and they have open conversations about their fears, people can become more flexible in a sustainable way. However, they need to make sure before that it happens sooner than later. If it doesn’t, you are going to get the opposite behaviors and conscious and subconscious higher levels of resistance.

Fot. Erich R. Bühler archives

How to build such organizational culture that helps deal with constant change?

The first thing we have to understand is the difference between agile and enterprise agility. When we talk about agile, from my perspective, we talk about some very good ideas which came from the software industry. When we try to expand those ideas to other areas outside software teams or we have groups where many different professions are needed to work together, we generally struggle with this. 

The human capacity to connect with others and with new ways of working depends largely on personality, environment, and the type of profession they have been doing for years.

When individuals engage in the cognitive processes to connect with others or deal with a blocking situation, their profession (what this person learned in school and university) strongly influences their ways of thinking and the patterns used to solve the problems. This also impacts how the person gives transparency, how she shares knowledge, and even how she evaluates risk.

Nowadays, in order to make a company successful, we need to embrace more profiles than just the software developers, and all of them must be in the same team to produce value. Maybe you would need a lawyer, someone from the financial team, two developers, a manager, etc. And all these are coming from completely different backgrounds. 

If we give the same problem to a lawyer, someone from the financial team, and a group of developers, they are going to follow different patterns to solve this problem. 

The lawyer may be less comfortable at taking risks and focus on the possible consequences, the economist may feel more comfortable at evaluating more options based on economic risks but forget about the human part, and the software developer may be more open to experiment and try to solve it with a software tool. 

I am not saying that people from the same profession think in the same way, but they follow certain patterns. If you are willing to help an organization to change and evolve as a whole, you need to make sure that people are aligned and able to work together. 

How do you build a good-performing team if they all have different mindsets? This is a very important question that is not generally addressed by any of the new ways of thinking or working. 

From my perspective, we need to use something called powerful change plans.

Fot. Magdalena Hajost Figure 2: The five types of Agility in Enterprise Agility
Source: Erich R. Bühler, Leading Exponential Change

These plans are based on five different types of agility [Fig. 2]. Starting with the easy part, at the top… we need technical agility, which means changing software as quickly, cheaply, and securely as possible. Here we have some software frameworks, tools, etc. But as you can see, the foundation for the cake is mental agility. If people do not have mental agility, they are going to struggle with any change. 

Then above this, we have social agility, which is about making sure that employees connect in a rapidly changing environment to try to achieve highly collective performance. The way that people connect conditions how knowledge flows in the organization, and this is directly connected to business value creation and innovation.

Above we have outcomes agility, which is how quickly an organization can change its direction. Here, we use techniques related to leadership style, budgeting, vision, etc. 

Above you have structural agility, which is how quickly your firm can adapt the procedures or roles to promptly embrace change. We have many techniques such as for example integrating people impacted by the change so they can create or have a voice in the design of new procedures or roles. That conscious decision will give the organization more flexibility because these individuals are going to be less resistant to change and offer higher levels of ownership.

Finally, we have technical agility which is what I mentioned before.

What I generally see are companies eating the top of the cake only (chocolate). Everyone likes chocolate but it has a lot of sugar and makes you see quick results but you know what happens with sugar…

In order to create a company that quickly adapts to change, you can’t just focus on technical agility. Everyone should be part of that ship and cut the cake vertically or what I call a powerful change strategy. This should include a little bit of each dimension. 

If you are going, for example, to install a new software tool in your company, you should consider if you have the right procedures, right budgeting and leadership style, see how people connect, and how mentally agile they are. But this approach does not mean that your powerful strategy has to be extensive and complicated but instead simple and small. 

Fot. J.Morgado

From your experience, which areas are often neglected by the organizations while conducting the transformation?

Many leaders in organizations believe that everything is about changing procedures, standardizing frameworks, or just producing software. They do not see that change is about improving or modifying the culture, a thing which generally is related to leadership style.

Many times this is neglected in a way that people end up finding easy solutions or pre-made frameworks to achieve a goal. 

It takes time until people realize that they have to increase mental agility to see things from a different perspective and that organizational health is key.

Leaders need to see that whatever action or decision they make, they should help maintain or increase organizational health. If people do not feel safe, they are not going to change, and they are going to go back to their previous habits.

What do you think, how will change management evolve in the future?

Well, I believe that everything is going to be focused on exponential organizations. An exponential organization is not where people are only smart, but where they are able to completely challenge and shuffle beliefs. 

From my perspective, organizations in the future are going to actively use the five different types of agility when trying to build a resilient and flexible company. 

You may or may not agree with me, but ultimately I hope we are all on the same page when I tell you that new theories are needed to build sustainable organizations and people who are comfortable being exposed every day to accelerated change.