Change Reflections

Change Reflections 

Al Watts

It’s been a challenging year, mainly in good ways. Beyond 2017’s general challenges that we’ve likely all encountered, my wife and I have been managing the move from our home of 25 years. I couldn’t help capturing some parallels and lessons from that experience as they apply to navigating life, work and organizational change:
  • Yes, a “Vision” is helpful.  As Yogi Berra put it, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll end up someplace else.” My wife and I had adequate opportunity to discuss pros and cons of the change, the lifestyle we envisioned and options for achieving that. A clear, compelling vision, the rationale for change, plans for implementation and clarity of roles pay dividends.
  • “If you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.” Thankfully my wife and I exercised shared leadership narrowing options for what was next. While we didn’t agree on everything, we ended up with a better plan and shared ownership of the plan. Not all, in fact very few, organizational changes can be democratic; however change leaders, managers and their organizations stand to benefit by broadening input on change plans.
  • Ask for help and be helpful. Like organizational change, our moving challenges impacted everyone involved, in different ways. Mutual support emotionally and physically builds resilience, strengthens relationships and assures more successful outcomes.
  • Focus on what’s ahead instead of what’s past; at least don’t dwell on the past. A sailor friend reminded me a while back that “it’s better to navigate by looking ahead than by watching your wake.” It’s hard leaving a home where our girls grew up, family and friends gathered and so many memories were formed. As with organizational change, however, while remembering and valuing the past is important, there is a fine line between appreciating where we’ve been and being stuck there.
  • Commit! There needs to be good enough reasons for change and a compelling vision pulling us forward to “break free” from where we’ve been. Head and heart need to be aligned to make forward progress; our “head” can sometimes be paying attention to rational reasons for changing while our “heart” isn’t there yet. Despite plans and up-front investments of time, emotional energy and money, there was a point in our process where we could have “lost heart,” tempted to reverse course. In 1519 Hernan Cortes burned his fleet’s ships to secure the commitment of his fellow Conquistadors. While not as dramatic, signing an apartment lease made it less likely that our plans would be hijacked by second guessing or half heartedness. “Forward” became our mantra.
  • Check and double-check assumptions; ‘better yet have others check them. Confidence in plans and others’ assurances are no guarantees of success. As it turned out our sense about briskness of home sales, best market price and a few other assumptions were different than reality. In that respect our experience was not unlike reality gaps that organizations encounter attempting to execute mergers, acquisitions and strategic plans. It can be easy to fall in love with our vision and plans, neglecting to sufficiently think through critical details or exercise sufficient due diligence.
  • Things don’t always go as planned; in fact they rarely do. Plan for the unexpected and contingencies; be flexible. See the previous point. One assumption that’s golden when undergoing major change is that reality will not unfold as planned. Think through “what ifs” ahead of time so reasoned adjustments can be executed when needed.
  • In uncertain times and unfamiliar surroundings, it can be a good idea to keep your head down. Introducing our cat Scottie to the new digs was the last step of our move. Apparently cats don’t like change; she remained in her small kennel, door open, for an hour before gingerly stepping out and carefully exploring her new surroundings. Cats’ instincts are not unlike our limbic brains, channeling prehistoric ancestors’ natural fear of the unknown, ever on the alert for predators and other dangers. I say it can be a good idea to keep our heads down when applying this lesson to organizational change since there are times when it’s better to step up, be noticed and lead. We need to be able to distinguish our instinctive limbic brain reflexes from more nuanced assessment of a new order.
  • Take a bit of the past and what’s familiar with you. “A bit” is the operative term here; halving our square footage required disciplined triage of the “need to have,” “nice to have” and “not needed or wanted.” A similar triage process is useful undergoing organizational change; in that case triaging applies not just to objects, but also to attitudes, habits and methods. Which will be truly useful vs. only burden us? Old habits die hard, and most of them are just that, habits. Change is physical, attitudinal and emotional. Dispensing with everything “old,” including emotional attachments, for what’s “new” can be counterproductive. Taking along select family heirlooms, a favorite painting and treasured photos, like emotional equivalents during organizational change, can help fulfill emotional needs in a change process.
  • Change the event is different than transition the process. As one of my mentors William Bridges taught, change is a physical event; transition is the psychological process that accompanies change. Our “move” was an event, and took about 4 hours. (Although like organizational change would have taken much longer without adequate planning and preparation.) The transition process, however, is ongoing. Bridges described three stages of transition, beginning with “Endings,” ending with “New Beginnings” and the “Neutral Zone” in between. We need to fully let go of “what was” in the Endings phase of transition before we can advance toward the “what will be” of New Beginnings. The Neutral Zone is like the space between trapezes; we’ve let go of what was, but haven’t fully grabbed hold of what’s next. My wife and I are still in the Neutral Zone of our transition, marked by awkwardness around things like where items are located and new routines, occasional psychological tugs of what used to be, and needs to reassure ourselves. It’s been helpful to know that some awkwardness, confusion and uncertainties between the old and new are normal.
  • New Beginnings are exciting and potential-laden. Having successfully managed Endings and the Neutral Zone, a break from the past, new surroundings and new routines can be energizing, opening possibilities and opportunities that otherwise wouldn’t exist. That is only true if we are on the lookout for and open to them. As they say, when one door closes another opens, and if not check the windows.
  • Change takes energy; we need to take care of ourselves and each other, and build resilience. Change and transition exact a physical, psychological and emotional toll. In addition to asking for and offering help, eating right, sleeping right, exercising right, a positive attitude and other basics of self-care pay dividends.
  • “Wherever you go, there you are. While our surroundings, possessions, routines and much else have changed, much has not. Carley and I are still who we were, with the same shared goals, characters, values, capacities and commitments to one another as before. I’ve counseled my clients that as they plan what to change, it is equally important to be clear about what will not change, and to reinforce their core purpose, goals and values. To use another of my favorite sailing analogies, while much changes on deck and around a sailing vessel underway, its keel is solid and unchanged. The keel is what keeps a sailboat upright and generally headed in the right direction, even in storms; our core purpose, principles and priorities are our keel.

There has been one more lesson learned from our moving experience. That is the opportunities for learning about leadership and life that any experience away from the usual can offer. In past newsletters I’ve shared lessons learned from sailing, camping in the Boundary Waters, travels and more; if we’re paying attention we can learn from almost any experience.  I hope these reflections on our move prove useful for you, and encourage you to capture useful lessons from your own life experiences.

Life is about change.

Sometimes it’s painful

Sometimes it’s beautiful

But most of the time,

It’s both.

(Lana Lang)

Image credits: Corporate Compliance Insights, juxtapost, Lisa Stoops, Forbes

Al Watts has 30 years of experience as an independent consultant helping leaders and organizations succeed by aligning people, systems and strategy. He is particularly skilled helping clients define strategic direction, identifying barriers to achieving goals, and helping boards, executive teams and diverse stakeholder groups craft shared commitments for growth.

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