Tips on handling change effort from Gen Z protests

Protesters during the Anti-Finance Bill demonstrations along Wabera street in Nairobi on June 20, 2024.

Photo credit: Billy Ogada | Nation Media Group

Now is the time to push the pause button. Now is the time to reflect, aspiring to have a glimmer of Solomon-like wisdom, melded with empathy. An ability to listen. And, even to have the courage to say: “I am sorry, I was wrong.”

So within, so without. Whether with Ruth selling tomatoes in the market, a business unit, a corporation, or a larger entity everything begins with a thought. Think, feel, then action. That is the hard wiring we all have. You may not exactly remember what someone said, but you know how they made you feel.

If one wants to change actions or behaviour, there has to be a shift in the thought process, one has to be open to having different thoughts. To ask questions like: What if? Why not? To change the pictures running in a loop, in one's grey matter, that we feel comfortable about being true.

In our always-on, ‘too much’, saturated with information and data world there is a world of difference between just being a recipient of the knowing, and the wisdom to draw to seemingly unrelated ideas together, and form genuine ‘ah ha’ moments of insight.

In business, everyone will quickly copy and imitate the competitors' new product or service offering, saying theirs is now ‘the best’. But a source of competitive advantage that can’t be readily copied is the ability to learn faster than the competition. Learning may mean making hopefully low-risk, low-cost mistakes quicker, than the other guy. And, to have the consistency of thought to aim to try to be at the forefront of what is possible.

Gen Z change effort is significantly different.

Even a moment’s thought should convince you that transforming a company is difficult. All examples of successful corporate change efforts were thought to have six common characteristics. What is interesting in the Gen Z 2024 Finance Bill tax protests is how their ‘change effort’ differs significantly.

Traditional change efforts relied on the leadership of one person, who was always an unreasonably demanding character. This is a deeply unfashionable conclusion, but true. Can anyone name a corporate transformation that happened without one particular person being the initial driving force?

Interestingly, in the Gen Z tax protest, powered by social media and tech-savvy individuals born from 1997 to 2012 appears to be more of a self-organising system, where defined conventional leaders are absent. Self-organisation is not new and occurs in, for instance, chemistry, biology, robotics and cognitive systems. Examples of self-organisation include crystallisation, animal swarming, neural circuits, and financial markets.

Unity of purpose

Those who really ran the company – usually no more than five people, and always a much smaller group than the full board – shared an emotional commitment to the change, and to each other, to help make that change happen. Unity of purpose of this sort is very rare.

Here Gen Z thanks to technology and tapping into young people’s hearts and minds feelings have mobilised the many, leaping from just 5 to thousands. Helped along by a ‘cause’, a short, pithy description, and no more than five words capturing the change desired.

The cause must, directly or by contrast, describe something missing in the company; it must be a standard for judging behaviour against; it must be challenging; and it must be attainable within a short 1 to 3-year time horizon. Examples of good causes include ‘ Putting people first’, ‘Simplify’, ‘Smash red tape’, and ‘ One company’.

Centre had the power to see what was going on throughout the company, and to ensure that the culture change happened everywhere. Many attempts at transformation have collapsed, once it was clear that one division or function was going to resist the change and get away with it.

The change process was hard as well as soft, and in particular linked to new and more demanding, but simple, financial targets. For a company that was making a four percent return on sales, this might have been a 10 percent return on sales, to be demanded from all business areas.

The transformation was supported by at least one world-class competency, which was given full rein.

We all had a Gen Z mindset once. With Moore’s Law, technology quickly becomes obsolete. However, what does not go out of fashion is the Solomon-like ability to pause, listen to a diversity of opinions, and make smart choices.

David is a director at aCatalyst Consulting | [email protected]

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