Tai Chi, Aikido and the Art of Managing Change

A Woman does tai chi.

A Woman does tai chi. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

With the Temple of Heaven as our backdrop and surrounded by tourists and locals filing by on their way to the ancient attractions, our group learned a Tai Chi routine in the middle of a walkway with the buzz of the vast city around us. It was a surreal experience.

I was traveling with a group of university students who were in the China for a month to learn about Chinese business practices. The contrast between the chaotic setting of noisy, polluted and over-crowded Beijing and the tranquility of tai chi provides a fitting metaphor for organizational life.

If you’re not familiar with Tai Chi, the focus is on calmness and is a good way to manage stress. The Japanese version of Tai Chi is Aikido, which emphasizes redirecting of energy rather than attack. Aikido also adds in elements of Judo. The principles of Aikido include acknowledging what is coming toward you, accepting the current reality, and redirecting the energy away from bodily harm.  The benefits of both of these martial arts forms can be realized without the religious attachments associated with them.

I was certainly not a quick learner of Tai Chi, but appreciate the mental focus and athletic control it takes to master this beautiful art form. And I appreciate the metaphor that helps me better understand the possibility of peace in the midst of chaos, the ability to turn off the noise around me to focus on what I can do to manage my situation – to redirect my energy toward something useful.

The three principles of Aikido provide a positive framework from which to manage change, whether personal, organizational or cultural.

Acknowledge: We cannot live in denial. Change is all around us and often comes when it is least convenient, causing disruption to our current state. It is important to acknowledge that change is inevitable and to acknowledge that we seldom have much say in the changes that come at us.

Accept: We accept that the change is upon us. This is where choice comes into play. We can put up our defenses, bury our heads in the sand, or start swinging. We don’t accept the outcome of the change, but we accept that the change is taking place and that we have to decide our response. We accept responsibility for how we react. It is in these moments of choice that our character is shaped.

Redirect: In Aikido, the energy that is coming toward the attacked person is redirected, not resisted. As change comes toward us, we can either try to block it, or take it and redirect our thinking, our posture, and our practices toward something useful and positive. Redirecting doesn’t mean we stand by passively.  Instead, we look for ways to adjust, and by choosing this course we set a constructive tone for ourselves and those we influence.

Recommended Reading:

HBR's 10 Must Reads on Change Management (including featured article 'Leading Change,' by John P. Kotter)

Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard

Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World Revised

In the Midwest? Join the Omaha Organization Development Network on Sept. 26th for a conference featuring Meg Wheatley. For more information, visit the Omaha OD Network site.