Management Lessons On Change From The Berlin Wall

David Grieve

Management lessons from the fall of the Berlin wall

Change happens, even the seemingly impossible like the fall of the Berlin wall can suddenly become reality. We can draw a number of management lessons from that momentous event and from its consequences.

The Wall will be standing in 50 and even in 100 years
GDR head of state Erich Honecker, East Berlin, January 19th 1989

The Unexpected Does Happen

Almost thirty years ago, the Berlin Wall came down. For 28 years the Berlin Wall was a tightly guarded concrete barrier over 140 kilometres long that cut off West Berlin from the surrounding German Democratic Republic (GDR). Although presented as the "Anti-fascist Protection Rampart", it was built in 1961 to stop East Germans from escaping to West Berlin. In the previous 10 years, nearly 20% of the East German population had left the country for West Germany. It certainly became the symbol of the "Iron Curtain" during the "Cold War". In fact nobody imagined its abrupt ending. Even in the 5 months preceding its fall, when events in Poland and Hungary effectively provided an escape route, it seemed the Wall would remain. Few dared to see that the future was being rewritten. Most people had closed their minds to that concept.How many of us also have a closed mind in business? How many accept a less than satisfactory situation?However, on 9th November 1989, the East German authorities announced the end of travel restrictions; and they opened up several checkpoints for visits to West Berlin. Thousands swept through the checkpoints. Berliners from the East and West began dancing on top of the wall; and they were enthusiastically breaking off pieces of the wall. This dramatic event led ultimately to a new map of Europe, and the end of the Iron Curtain; millions of people found a new freedom, and new challenges too. Within two years, the Soviet Union and its empire also fell. The unexpected had happened redefining world dynamics.Are your market dynamics being redefined? Are you a driver or a passenger, are you going to be left behind?

Experts Do Not Anticipate Everything

For 28 years the Wall separated people and divided Germany and the European continent. Few people successfully escaped to Berlin West over this time. My father believed that he would never see the dismantling of the Berlin Wall in his lifetime. The current thinking at the time was that Communism’s rise was inevitable. Very few "experts" predicted or expected the extent and speed of the changes that saw the collapse of Communism, and the dissolution of the Soviet Union.Are you hearing only one viewpoint? Or are you open to diverse analyses?

Four management lessons from the fall of the Berlin Wall

Lesson 1: Having A Vision Is Powerful

On 12th June 1987, US President Ronald Reagan stood at the Brandenburg Gate and demanded “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” His words were largely ignored by the international media. Many so-called foreign policy experts dismissed Reagan’s demand as naïve and sensationalist. It was also a morale booster and a symbol of alignment behind a compelling vision.Few things are more powerful for a business than having a clear and concise vision!Think of Apple, Virgin, or Amazon, just to name a few. Their market success is testament to their visions.

Lesson 2: Visualise Positive Outcomes, We can Shape A Better Future

The worst-case scenario may not happen, particularly when people put their minds to achieving positive change. Negative media stories sell, so they are frequent. Equally many people seem to spread such negative sentiments inside organisations. Indeed in business non-positive messages can make us believe that our future is not in our hands.The management lessons here are around creating and nurturing powerful beliefs. We can achieve positive outcomes with great leadership and teamwork. It starts with a new belief that we can rewrite our future. The will to make change happen, and to seize the opportunities can make the seemingly impossible become the inevitable; just as the Berliners took over the Wall and destroyed what had been a feared symbol.

Lesson 3: Predicting the future is dangerous

We would be wise to not just lean on so-called "experts" who write books predicting the future. The collapse of the Wall and of Communism caught almost everyone by surprise. When you look back on the predictions of what life would be like in 50 or 100 years, not many were right! the “Great Horse Manure Crisis of 1894” never happened! The experts of the end of the 19th century had not predicted the invention and fast growth of motorcars made affordable by Henry Ford. How many understood the changes that the Internet would bring to our lives and businesses? And the speed at which change happened?

Lesson 4: Be Ready To Adapt

Change is inevitable. And we must recognise that we can be wrong. Technology changes have created new market dynamics. Yet not all "experts" had read them correctly. Failure to recognise these new dynamics has proven fatal for many big brand names. Organisations that get stuck in the past fail sooner or later.Only when we set ourselves free from the limitations of our past thinking, can we reshape our future. We also have to accept that whatever we are doing today will not be good enough tomorrow. Given these management lessons, let me ask you 3 questions:

  • What are you and your business doing to recognise the inevitability of change and to embrace it?
  • And what should you be changing to secure success for your business?
  • As change brings fear and hard work, how should you lead your teams to a unified effort and sustained strong performance?

An external perspective can help kickstart the process and facilitate transitions. Talk to David Grieve and The Network Of Consulting Professionals.

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