Bookstore shelves are filled with stories of inspiring leaders who rode in on a white horse to turn failing organisations around. Everything falls into place. The restructure is seamless, resistance is low and revenue is up. Business is the perfect setting for the hero’s journey.
But in a case of history being written by the winners, these stories are rare. The less popular and far more common change story is more complicated – and often more painful. Change is difficult. It involves humans who may be heavily invested in the present and facing an uncertain future can throw up emotions that surprise even those who wear them.
Change is a tricky process.
In his book The Practice, Seth Godin writes about teaching juggling.
Ask most people what juggling is, and they’ll reply ‘catching balls.’ It’s not. It’s about throwing balls. In the throw-catch-throw-catch of juggling, those who concentrate on the catching inevitably drop the ball. The real skill is in the height, force and rhythm of the throw. The catching becomes automatic.
Rule one of teaching juggling is helping the juggler shift to the cognitive and muscle memory needed to concentrate on throwing when our bodies and instincts are telling us to catch.
When we are leading change, we need to ask ourselves better questions about where we should put the weight of our efforts otherwise the change we seek may start with a bang and end with a whimper. And that just adds to the initiative fatigue of the people in our organisation.
Bangs and whimpers
The change that begins with a bang and ends in a whimper focuses too much on the catch (or the outcome) and too little on the throw.
Change often announces itself with a bang; a fancy new vision statement and rebrand; restructures, new job descriptions and title bumps; PowerPoint presentations and KPIs. Maybe even job losses. It is cooked up in the C-Suite with consultants and lowered down onto the staff from above.
But it soon ends in a whimper. The change is not compelling enough for people to adopt new work habits, it’s not inspiring enough to refocus on new projects, or it’s not defined enough for people to see the point. Worse, employees may feel excluded from the process.
In the change game of bangs and whimpers, the organisation has changed, but not how you imagined.
Effecting real change is about listening closely to what is happening in our organisations. It is about shifting our focus to the throw – even when it works against our instincts. It is about redefining change and having the empathy to realise that change can be a painful experience for people in our organisation.
After all, most humans are highly resistant to change. It requires letting go of old habits, mindsets and projects and overcoming our own resistance. It is about being big enough to bear the brunt of the frustration, denial and fear that often comes with change.
For the leader, many of whom thrive and whose careers can rise or fall on being successful change agents, it is worth taking a step back to imagine or remember your own resistance to change. We all have it. It is worth reflecting on your own difficulties in accepting, letting go and moving forward so that you can more effectively lead change with dignity and humanity.
For more learning on listening to the still small voice of change, the DIVE process at The Change Chef shows us how to carefully navigate our ways through organisational change.