A week or so ago Karen Schneider asked for thoughts on a future presentation she will be doing which will include the subject of change. Having done a lot of work (teaching, training, leadership development, research, and presentation) on this subject, I know how fraught it can be with platitudes and/or abstract concepts. As I considered Karen’s inquiry I thought I would take a stab at crystallizing what I think leaders should think about when leading change. I used my comment on her blog as a basis for this post:
Leaders (at many levels of an organization) have the responsibility to help people in the organization come together to move forward – which means to make sense of, adapt to, and even instigate change. Some thoughts on actions leaders can take when leading change:
1. Help people realize the difference between true resistance and fear of loss of the known. William Bridges, who has written eloquently about managing transitions and change, states that people don’t so much resist change as they fear loss – loss of competence, loss of familiarity, loss of security, loss of proximity, etc. I believe this is a very accurate statement and that leaders should encourage compassion within the organization and help people develop respectful language in reference to each other. The word “resistance” is easily and frequently used to describe people who are perceived to be roadblocks to progress and change effectiveness. They may actually just need time to process loss (real or perceived) and/or to have that feeling of loss validated and heard.
2. To focus on incompetence for a moment: In my experience adults are not comfortable at all with feeling incompetent (or unknowledgeable). In fact, I would go so far as to say that the educational systems we all experience are almost universally designed to create this inability to accept incompetence even though it is a condition of learning. Hence in a period of change when, in fact, we may not know what we are doing just yet, we may feel somewhat incompetent. This is highly anxiety producing. So, lower the demand for high productivity and expertise and raise the expectation for experimentation and a reasonable tolerance and latitude for messing up while learning and/or creating new systems.
3. Help people understand what is changing and what isn’t. I find that when we talk about change in organizations it is in very broad sweeping terms which disallow the specificity that would help people understand exactly what it is that is changing and why – and what roles they can play in helping. Not everyone has to be the change agent or enthusiast to play an effective role in helping the organization change: we also need pragmatists who can help us follow through and accomplish change and we need “tradition-bearers” who can remind us to not forget our core values. As part of being specific it is also useful to describe the rationale for the change – the purpose of it. And, yes, people will question change for the sake of change.
4. Help people understand the difference between solving problems and balancing dichotomies. Sometimes there is not a solution to something – we just need to balance the existing tensions of a dichotomy. This is a hard thing to learn to analyze but well worth it.
5. Echoing William Bridges again, understand that 9/10ths of change is really the act of transition – and transitions can feel awkward, unstable, slushy, and discomfiting. Leaders can help people deal with transition by reminding others of the worthiness of the change, the actual end goal/vision, and by simply acknowledging that transitions are unsettling even when the future vision is compelling. Viewing transition as a journey and persistently pointing to the intended place of arrival (however temporary) can be helpful in keeping people from feeling as if they will be in some kind of perpetual slush.
6. Finally help people discover and articulate the things that make them resilient as a group and as individuals.
How many times do we decry the “broken” world around us? Or express anxiety about the imperfections in our organizations or in our own lives? Well, Sam Carpenter has just written an amazing post, on his Work the System website, that is a simple but deep reminder that most systems are not only working but working perfectly according to their original designs: whether it is plant life emerging in spring just as it has in previous years and looking just the same, or a human-designed system such as an airline getting passengers to New York City from Chicago. Systems – millions of them – are working! Why not focus on effective systems and improve those as environments change, rather than on the “imperfect” ones – which, in my view, are not always whole systems but are human habits, human assumptions about reality or what is or is not possible, or about flawed human decisions.
On this spring day in the Midwest where daffodils (perfect ones) are pushing up through the ground, why not stop and appreciate the extraordinary abundance of perfect systems operating around us?
Thank you Sam Carpenter!
I’ve been thinking about creativity for many years and about collaboration for fewer years but still for quite a while. I never expected to learn deep lessons about these two subjects from Twyla Tharp! Because I never thought a brilliant choreographer and dancer would have the time to write for the rest of us. But she has, in her two books The Creative Habit and The Collaborative Habit. These wonderfully accessible books offer insights gained over many years of creative and collaborative work. I love these books! Tharp’s ability to convey the essence of her subject through illustrations (from the dance world and beyond), bring specific points and practices to life for me.
However, one thing I have learned from her books – especially from The Creative Habit – is that without self-discipline there will be no creative work. Although probably obvious to some, to the rest of us it seems inspiration or visits by muses should be enough. These are not enough! Just doing the work is the main creative habit that needs to be developed. There are many other ideas in these books but this one thought is fundamental.
In a world of multiplying distractions, having the self-discipline to focus on what you want to focus on and blocking other things out for a time is one of the hardest things to do. At least it is for me. Carving out time for things important to me has become an increasingly pressing issue. It is easy to bring work home, become fascinated by the television, get distracted by the richness of the internet, focusing on what’s going on outside the window, paying attention to telephones, etc. All of these things are pieces of life that add value, but to get creative work done sometimes all of these must be turned off.
Just doing is what gets creative work into the world. Doing for me means sketching, drawing in silverpoint, painting, even organizing my studio. There are other parts of my life where “just doing” is about other things (like creating new content for presentations), but right now I am thinking about how important “just doing” is to my artwork. Not a new thought in the creative world but something that requires self-discipline – hard won in a world of fascinating and shiny things!