Our world is constantly changing. The rate of change may be increasing, but it has always been in flux. This basic fact about the world is recognized by the maxim ‘you can never step in the same river twice’ – attributed to Heraclitus thousands of years ago.
In organisations, the rationales for programmatic or bespoke change efforts often acknowledge this reality. We describe the tremendous complexity and accelerating rate of change in our modern world as part of the need for developing new ways of doing things. Individual and organisations need to be agile, flexible, smart, etc. Change is required because the world is changing around us and we need to respond.
The paradox is that the more we focus on changing, the less we tend to change. Examples abound: from failed New Year’s resolutions, to the difficulty in shifting team dynamics, to the intractable problem of changing organizational culture. To see why, we can ask a different question. Given that the world is constantly changing around us, how is it that we have any stable sense of ourselves, our team, our organisation at all? Why is changing not the simplest thing in the world? Why does it feel so hard?
This notion of stability is important because it speaks to the fact that we have to constantly resist some change in order to have a sense of identity - as individuals, groups, and organisations. This is not a sin, but it can be the case that this aspect of human personality is omitted when dealing with change. In some ways, it has become taboo or extremely dangerous to say ‘I don’t want to change’ or ‘I don’t want to be flexible.’ Expressing or exploring this part of oneself, in organizational life at least, risks being labelled as ‘a blocker’, ‘an obstacle’, ‘a bottleneck’, etc. It could even risk one’s position when in reality it may be a very important sentiment that needs to be respected. The result is that these emotionally conservative impulses are forced underground. This in turn creates a dissonance that many will find familiar: the culture where the public language is pro-change, pro-novelty, pro-aspiration, but the private reality is cynical, apathetic and/or disengaged.
Questions about how best to work with ‘resistance’ are best saved for a longer discussion. I would like to make the simple suggestion that there is one important question that anyone – from an individual to a large company – can ask themselves when preparing to undertake change:
“How do I keep things the same?’
This question is not directed at a goal. It is a question that tries to invite a fuller, deeper articulation of ‘the current state.’ It is not meant to suggest that staying the same is what is needed. It is intended to invite an exploration of what is happening that keeps things as they are. Exploring this may not feel productive, but it almost always brings to light important processes or patterns of behavior that have some value to the organization but which aren’t expressed for one reason or another.
Getting the most out of it
This question is a starting point and there are many ways to use it. An individual might use it for personal reflection. A senior leadership team might use it to build a collective sense of how ‘we’ are keeping things the same and therefore not changing.
Here are two guidelines to get the most out of this question:
Answer with things you do rather than things you don’t – if you struggle to give feedback, you could answer this question by saying ‘well, I don’t give feedback very often,’ which begs the question of what you do do. An affirmative answer might be something like: ‘I find myself thinking of something I like about our team, I feel I would like to share it, then I question if our weekly meeting is the right place for that. I worry that I’ll be taking the meeting off-track if I say how I feel, so I keep my thoughts to myself.’
Which brings us to guideline number two:
Be specific – concrete answers rooted in personal experience tend to contain more information about what is going on than abstract or general answers. In the above example, the person is describing how they keep some of their experience of their team to themselves, that they might like something different, when they have this experience, and how they repeat this pattern. This is very different than simply saying ‘I tend to keep my thoughts to myself.’
This question may be difficult to answer. It can be the case that awareness of how we keep things the same touches on strong emotions, interpersonal relationships, power struggles, etc – elements of life which feel difficult to integrate into a professional environment. However, when we collectively hold these things ‘below the surface’, we tell ourselves that talking about them in any way is not survivable and deadly to all our efforts. So we fall into a kind of complicity with the desire for change, the positive, the aspirational. Then, when the complex reality becomes apparent, we can feel that we have ‘failed’ in our efforts to change. We don’t understand why, which can lead us into a difficult cycle of feeling incompetent or helpless, then ashamed, then we re-double our efforts in order to rid ourselves of those feelings, we feel temporarily renewed with ‘positivity’, only to wonder if this time will be any different...
To me, this is the horrible emotional reality of the term ‘change fatigue.’ We lose our faith that things can change, which is a remarkable idea given that we started with Heraclitus. However, awareness of what we are doing, rather than what we are not, in an environment where this can be held, explored, and allowed to inform actual work, can re-vitalise and energise people in a way that is transformative.
We should not abandon our aspirations for a better future in work or in life. What I suggest is that we re-balance our change efforts with deeper awareness of what already is. At its heart, this is a dialogue between the Past and the Future. Heritage meets Vision. Identity meets Growth. Alienation of one of these potent psychological forces leaves us lopsided and off-balance. A genuine exchange is a truly potent combination.
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