I’m not a big fan of change. Routine and predictability help me feel grounded. They give me a feeling of safety that allows me to take risks elsewhere. I subscribe to Flaubert’s directive: “Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.” Change makes the ground stir for me. Constancy lets me stir the ground myself.
So, I have a particular empathy for those who feel uprooted by disruptions to their routine.
I’ve led many initiatives that require people to make changes to how they do what they do and how they think about what they do. I’ve led Change Management programs that aim to escort them through those changes. I know the models: Lewin’s change management model, the McKinsey 7-S model, Kotter’s theory, Nudge theory, ADKAR, Bridges’ transition model, Kübler-Ross’ change curve, the Satir change management model. Each is instructive in its own way.
But I’ve seen teams get bogged down in these models, in the theories of change, to the detriment of the living, anxious people that they were there to serve and support and guide. People standing on stirring ground. What seemed to get lost in these models was the soul, the feelings. And, I’d argue, the importance of memory.
To anyone who is leading change or a project that will require others to change, my urgent recommendation is: Remember when change freaked you out. In fact, try to remember a childhood change – when your emotions were rudimentary and your ability to see around the corner was underdeveloped. Because change, I would suggest, strikes the child in us.
One of the biggest changes I experienced as a child was when my family moved. I was about 12. My parents led us through the change based purely on instinct, fuelled by empathy (and of course rooted in love).
My mother sat with us and explained why we were looking at new houses. And she made it exciting. We’d have more space! We’d get to meet new people! I’d have my own bathroom!
When they first looked at the house that they would ultimately buy, they took my brother and I along. I didn’t quite understand what was going on. We were going to live in someone elses house? Sleep in their beds and eat their food? I was confused, but I got to put an image to the words. It was the beginning of making the change real.
After they bought the house, they again took us along on their measurement-taking visits. (I still was trying to figure it out. I remember standing in the master bedroom and saying to the elderly owner, “Oh, my parents will definitely move those two single beds together.)
After the deal closed but before we moved in, my mother would pick up my brother and I from school with a packed lunch and we’d go to the house and eat. Like we were camping.
They involved us in the process. We were given boxes and asked to pack some of our things. We got to choose our bedrooms. We even got to pick out paint colours. On a Saturday they drove us to our new schools, pointing out the walking route we’d take and then taking us around the building and the sports field. And they introduced us to neighbours and to their kids (who would become our closest friends).
By the time moving day approached, we were ready. I’d felt anxiety when I first learned we were going to move. New kids and a new school and a new room and who knows what monsters might be waiting for me under my bed. But I’d kept them to myself – I didn’t want to seem like a wuss, especially to my brother. Now they were gone. I wasn’t just comfortable. I was excited.
Then came moving day, the biggest truck I’d ever seen, strong men moving boxes all through the new house, so much excitement. And I sat in my new room, surprised and delighted to discover that the bed I was going to sleep in was actually my bed. All the furniture, it was our furniture! And the food in the fridge, it was the same food that was in the fridge yesterday! It was all just too wonderful. The ground did not stir.
It was because my parents took the time to bring us along, incrementally and compassionately.
So, here are Mom and Dad’s rules of change management:
1. Give people a glimpse of what’s to come early on, even before you know the details.
2. Let them participate in the planning, even to a small degree.
3. Let them experience glimpses of the change, even before it’s implemented.
4. Show them how their basic needs will continue to be met.
5. Bring some of the past along; highlight what isn’t going to change.
6. Remember that if people don’t say they’re anxious, it doesn’t mean they’re not.
7. Above all, remember what it was like to not know what you know now.