Stay Relevant. Or Else.

Former US Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki said, “If you don’t like change you’re going to like irrelevance even less.” Market leaders eventually lose their position. Great products, services, and brands lose their luster. The tactics that won the last war rarely apply completely to the next one. We don’t just move in cycles, we move in spirals, both up and down.

While the Shinseki quote is often presented as a motivator, there’s a darker side of it too. He is not just suggesting “change, or else,” he’s qualifying the “or else” with “not liking.” Not liking something doesn’t guarantee change. Instead, it is all too common to associate dislike with acceptance and tolerance. In this sense, like and dislike are states of being. Without action (“change”), we risk falling into a state of irrelevance, and that can be far worse than the pain associated with just doing the work. 

We can apply the philosophy to how we operate as professionals. When our clients look for changes, they’re actually looking for signs of progress. The amateur thinks progress and results are the same things. The professional doesn’t confuse the two. The professional understands that a positively minded process is the core of the value proposition. As Seth Godin says, “we make things better by making better things.” We have to show people that’s what we do, not just hope they notice (or worse, hope they don’t notice that we aren’t doing anything).  

A true test of a professional relationship is when both parties can agree to dislike results while still collectively agreeing on the process. Think about that. The client never sees the professional giving up, settling in, blindly accepting, or merely tolerating negative results. Instead, they see a professional who sets about getting things done, all while consistently adapting to new information. Professional trust is backward minding, and forward-looking.

Shinseki’s quote pushes us to continuously change with an internal desire to stay relevant. It acknowledges that we won’t like all of the work all of the time, but it also tells us that the cost of not doing it is too great. The question is not if we can do the work, but if we are willing to do the work. When we do, we will find that we like the rewards that come with it even more.