Leadership Requires Embracing the Demands of Change

This post is authored by Steven W. Pflantz, president of ISA 2017.

Part of the challenge I knew I would face when I took on the position of Society president was leading us through the changes necessary to keep ISA in a leadership position within our industry.  From my perspective, there are four components of the change equation. To maintain our standing and build upon our successes, ISA must become:  (1) more flexible, (2) more adaptable, (3) faster to market, and (4) less reactive.  Let’s focus in on each of these areas.

There’s a saying that goes: “Blessed are those that are flexible, for they will not get bent out of shape.” I don’t recall the origin of that quote, but it kind of stuck with me over the years and enters my consciousness when I’m in situations that call for “giving in a little.”

You see, technically oriented people like ourselves — while we get motivated by and excited about new technology and gadgets — tend to be averse to change in our behavior. We like things to be orderly and “by the book.” Although this adherence to order and established rules is logical and provides a sense of security, there are times when we need to do some things out of the ordinary.

I have been at the leadership level in the Society for a little over 10 years now, and I am quite positive that over each and every one of those years, I have witnessed spirited debate over what the Manual of Organization and Procedures (MOP) says and why we have to follow it.

While I am not condoning mass mutiny and abandoning the MOP and all our beloved processes, I think we have to keep in mind that — despite all of our good intentions — we might not have crafted the MOP quite as effectively as we could have or should have. Sometime we get things “wrapped around the axle” when it comes to procedures and spend a little too much time in the weeds, debating the rules while the problem lays idly by waiting for us to remember what we’re actually dealing with.

All of us could do a better job putting things in the proper perspective, spending less time on the familiar, “this is the way we’ve always done it” way of thinking, and devoting more time honing in on the core challenge at hand.

Adaptability is a fitting word for automation professionals.  It could be said that a control loop helps the process adapt to changes and keep things under control.  Since ISA was founded in 1945, have we not seen sweeping changes in technology, and in the application of technology to implement automation strategies? Some are of the opinion that we should stay with our roots and focus on what we started with — instrumentation. While we all can agree that ISA was founded as the instrumentation society, let’s not forget that things have changed quite a bit since 1945. Back “in the day,” we had the instrument, and then the pneumatic controller, and then the single loop controller.  That was kind of it.  But fast-forward. We now have equipment and systems that are a bit more complex than single loop controllers.  While they’re all built on the foundation of the good ole’ instrument, our jobs have changed from primarily focusing on instrumentation, to having to build and maintain complex control systems.

Not only are things changing, they are changing faster than ever.  The lesson here is that we need to push ourselves to adapt to an ever-changing array of technology in an ever-changing world.  We can’t continue to do what we have always done because that just doesn’t work all the time. Some things stay the same, but those are more in the realm of guiding principles than in matters of technology.

In fact, we’re challenged not just by changes in technology but by cultural changes.  How people work and learn today is dramatically different than years ago.  The delivery methods for our intellectual property and training must comply with the way people want to receive them. Trends show that people want to consume information in smaller bites and via different delivery methods and media than what have been used in the past. We can have great content, but if we cannot deliver it in a user-friendly form and format for the new generations of consumers, we lose business. In short, if we want to compete and stay relevant, we’ve got to view adaptability as a core and vital competency.

The last two change goals — faster to market and less reactive — are similar in some ways and different in others. Because things are changing faster than ever, it’s more important than ever to be faster to market. Why? Well, first of all, there are a lot of for-profit businesses determined to take business from us.  If we are not able to keep pace with the speed of change, demand, and our competition, we will lose in the marketplace.

Yes, like a for-profit business, we are striving to gain new customers. And while we remain steadfast to our core mission — serving the needs and expectations of our members and other automation professionals — we have to improve our competitive edge in the marketplace. We need to move more quickly to capitalize on our strengths and expertise. Think of how long it takes to develop one of our standards.  It takes time to follow the prescribed process, but we’ve got to find ways to speed this process up or others will get there first. The other risk is that the marketplace pushes the issue and sets the standard.

Now let’s move from keeping up with the competition to leading it. Being less reactive means setting trends and breaking through boundaries rather than responding to what’s already there.  ISA serves and represents highly talented experts in their fields who are constantly pushing the envelope of what’s possible.  There is no reason that ISA should not be regarded as the de facto thought and technology leader.

In some areas, we already are. Many in government, academia, and private enterprise look to us to weigh in on and help address critical challenges. They know we’re not in it to benefit shareholders or to line our own pockets. We’re in it because we care about making the world a better, safer place and acting as stewards of our great profession.

Through the hard work of ISA leaders, member volunteers, and staff, ISA is well-positioned for long-term success. Realizing our potential, though, lies in our willingness and ability to change and act as a catalyst for it.

I end my post with a quote by John F. Kennedy, the 35th president of the United States: “Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.”

About the Author

Steven W. Pflantz, PE, is an associate in the St. Louis, Mo. office of CRB Consulting Engineers, Inc., a global consulting, design and construction services firm. He serves as a technical leader on many of CRB’s electrical and automation design projects, applying his extensive electrical engineering experience — particularly in the areas of instrumentation and controls. A longtime ISA member and leader, Steven brings to his role as Society president a deep understanding of the automation profession, the needs and expectations of ISA members, and the value and significance of automation careers. In 2012 and 2013, he served as vice president of ISA’s Professional Development Department. He’s also served on ISA’s Executive Board (2008 and 2012) and as an ISA district vice president (2007 and 2008). In 2012, Steven was inducted into the Academy of Electrical and Computer Engineering at the Missouri University of Science and Technology. He’s also a member of the International Society of Pharmaceutical Engineering (ISPE). He earned a bachelor of science degree in electrical engineering from the Missouri University of Science and Technology.
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A version of this article also has been published in ISA Insights.

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