Tips a Tasmanian gave us in 1902 to embrace change in 2021

Are you struggling to embrace change? Industry expert Nigel Collin has some tips for you

Let me take you back to 1902 when an enterprising young man had an idea.

J.A. Birchall owned a small stationary shop in Launceston, Tasmania. At the turn of last century, if you wanted to communicate with your clients, or colleagues, you couldn’t jump on social media, email or text them. You would most likely grab a sheet of paper and write a memo or note and then physically give it them or have someone else run up six flights of stairs, or across town to do so.

Added to this complexity is that, unlike today’s world, when you bought writing paper in 1902 you did so in large individual sheets, which you would then cut to size and use. 

But our hero, young Mr Birchall, had an idea.

He wrote to his suppliers in England and suggested they cut the sheets down into smaller, more manageable sizes. He then evolved the idea and suggested they place a firm backing board under the sheets, so they didn’t have to be rolled. He took it even further and suggested they get some gum and glue the top edges of the loose sheets together so people could peel them off one by one, without individual sheets coming loose and falling on the ground. 

It took a while to convince his suppliers but eventually J.A. Birchall’s creative scheme came into existence. I bet you didn’t know a Tasmanian from Launceston invented the writing notepad that we know today.

For you, as an executive assistant there are some great lessons here to help you navigate 2021.

  1. It’s the little things you do that make the biggest difference

If you want to change a routine or habit, be better at time management or communication, the trick is not to try changing everything at once. Just focus on small consistent changes and momentum soon follows. Even when faced with a large project or task, breaking it down into smaller components means it is more manageable and eases any angst or overwhelm.

  • Pivoting is overrated and risky!

While inventing the writing notepad, J.A. Birchall didn’t reinvent paper or letter writing. Rather he evolved something already in existence to better suit the times and the problem at hand. During COVID-19 I have interviewed dozens of businesses and none of them completely re-invented everything. They evolved or tweaked something already there. When it comes to advancing your career in 2021 and best helping executives through the next 12 months, it may be a tweak or variation in what you do that has impact, not changing everything.

  • Play to your strengths

Birchall played to his strengths and leveraged what he knew. As a stationer he didn’t go about trying to invent the iPhone. In uncertain times it’s important to know what you are good at and leverage it. Yes, you should still step out and learn new things, but to effectively change you need to have a grasp on what you are good at and have a level of understanding about what you are changing.

  • Don’t rush
    In coming up with the idea for his notepad, J.A. Birchall progressed his idea in stages. It didn’t appear out of thin air all in one moment. His idea grew and built upon the previous iterations. A pitfall many people fall into is expecting to have all the answers or for everything to happen at once. Let’s be realistic, things take time. If you rush you risk tripping and making mistakes. That’s no good for you, your boss or your career. 

JA Birchall may not have experienced a pandemic like COVID-19, and he may not have been an executive assistant, but he did understand the importance of small changes by trying new things and improving what was already in place. There is great value in that because as 2021 unfolds, it will no doubt throw a few surprises our way. That’s why the best way to navigate it is step by step, inch by inch.

Nigel Collin is a change and leadership expert helping people and organisations make change happen through small consistent steps. He is author of ‘Game of Inches’, an Internationally recognised keynote speaker and executive coach.