Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Change is Like Change

Executive Summary:
Change the transformation is like change the money:  there is only so much stress and discomfort a team, person, or organization can take before they are spent and just can’t deal with any more.  To refill the piggy bank along the way, bring closure to small, incremental changes, and allow for rests that enable your team to recharge.

The Rest of the Story:
Once upon a time, apprentice programs and guilds made sure that the way to do a trade or perform a task remained preserved from generation to generation, without change.  Today, it seems that life is all about change.  We thrive on the latest technology for communication or home enhancement.  We elected our current U.S. president, based on promises of change.  The current state of the economy is driving change, for which we didn’t ask, and our long-term business plans don’t talk about how we will keep the business the same; they talk about how the business will grow and evolve.  The good news is that we all live and work with a built-in expectation of change.  However, that doesn’t alter the fact that change is often uncomfortable or stressful, and there is only so much we can take before we shut down.

I like to think of change the transformation in terms of the change one keeps in a piggy bank.  If we run out of change in the piggy bank, we just can’t do any more transformation.  We shut down.  When we over tax our change bank, change-disaster occurs.  Here are some signs that we have reached the bottom of the bank.  
  • Optimistic or change-ready people begin to resist.
  • People begin asking re-set questions like, “Why are we doing this?”
  • Apathy sets in and people stop caring about anything you say regarding the change. (This can be a bad state because passive resistance and non-participation begin to take over.)
  • Rumor spreads that the change is unsuccessful, before it’s over (the rumors are wishful thinking by people who want out)

The list could go on for pages, but this sample exemplifies the bottom line.  People involved or affected would like it to stop and are beginning to look for excuses or reasons to disengage.  Some of the above examples are extreme and if rumors are spreading or apathy rules, then revolt is imminent if it hasn’t already begun.  In any case, your change effort is in jeopardy, if not doomed.

Now, I do feel that it is important to point out that resistance, apathy, rumors, and obstinate questions are only signs of an empty change bank if they are part of a change in behavior after the change is under way.  If they are happening at the beginning of the effort, well, some degree of that is normal and must be pushed through to get rolling.

There are a few simple ways to manage the stress of change and make sure that you don’t hit bottom.  The first tactic is a little obvious.  If we assume that the piggy bank for change is fed at some rate of tolerance, then we can simply moderate the rate of change such that the drain does not exceed the fill.  This is great for long, steady, change and improvement.  Sometimes, we must change quickly or make big changes in order to make progress, and a slow trickle is not an option.  When we must, do so, but plan for a rest at the end of the change.  Big upheavals require a mind and spirit to regroup to and settle down to brush off some of the stress that results.  That doesn’t mean that you fail to follow through on your sustain-the-change efforts.  I’m just suggesting that you don’t immediately jump into the next big upheaval.  Besides, you should make sure that your change is sustainable before getting carried away with more.  A third tactic, and one that I have found to be very effective, is to break your big changes into rational pieces that the greater audience can see and understand.  Then, treat each piece like an essay.  Tell them what you are going to do, do what you said you would, and then tell them what you did.  It’s the last part that is most important and the least done by leaders and change agents.  Closure is an important part of stress management.  If your team still thinks that that element of change is taking place, then some of their anxiety and stress will still be invested in dealing with it.  However, if you show them the results, say “congratulations,” and move along in the plan, your team members can take a deep breath, smile, and re-invest in the next step, rather than just pile it on in addition.

I can’t emphasize enough the beneficial, psychological effects of closure when it comes to change.  In this sense, physical stress (exercise) and change stress are similar.  If you spend your Saturday playing vigorous sports with your fiends, you will want to rest on Sunday.  It’s the same for big, upheaval changes.  If you are exercising in the gym, and you’re moving some heavy weights, it helps to pause at the end of a movement, take a deep breath, and re-set your will for the next movement.  It’s the same for taking change in sensible steps or pieces.  The key is making sure that your team takes the breath and resets the will.  The way to do that is to clearly communicate that the step or piece-push is over.  Otherwise, it feels like someone is adding weight to your barbell while you are still trying to move it.  It can be very frustrating.

Remain sensitive to the attitudes of the people on your team as you drive change.  Look for signs that the stress is getting too much and that revolt could be imminent.  Manage stress by managing the rate of change.  If the rate must be rapid, build steps and closure for those steps into the plan for your change initiative.  Communicate that closure clearly and boldly.  When the small steps are all completed and the upheaval is over, allow for a rest and for the change in the piggy bank to replenish before tackling your next workout.  Try it.  These simple tactics make a huge difference.

Stay wise, friends.

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