What Are The Two Challenges At The Heart Of Change?

The Traditional Take On Change

So much has been written on change – particularly organisational change. It occurs to me that this material is mostly written by folks sitting in the stands, observing the game of change being played out on the court by others, and interpreting what they see through their preferred lens – the dominant one being the cognitivist-psychological one.

A favourite of change management orthodoxy is the Kubler-Ross model: the five stages of grief. The ‘love’ of this model (the content – 5 stages of grief) is so strong that almost nobody bothers to grapple with the context.  What am I pointing at?  The fact that this model was derived by speaking with those facing terminal illness.  The skeptic in me asks, is the person confronted with organisational change confronted with death? It occurs to me that the answer is no.

A Phenomenological Perspective On Change

What is the challenge of change as experienced by those on the court – those actually being asked to and undergoing change?  It occurs to me that the ‘as lived-experienced’ challenge of change is made of two challenges.

Challenge 1: The first challenge is that of moving from the comfortable-familiar-normal way of being-travelling in the world to a way of being-travelling that is experienced as uncomfortable-unfamiliar-abnormal and leaves one feeling exposed-vulnerable; and

Challenge 2: The second challenge is that of sticking with this new (abnormal-awkward) way of being-travelling for  long enough for this way of being-travelling to occur as comfortable-familar-normal and thus drop out of conscious awareness.

My lived experience is that most change intentions-effort-initiatives fail because of Challenge 2: the inability to be with that which shows up as unfamiliar-abnormal and experience the discomfort-exposure-vulnerability that goes with this.  This is particularly so for those people, in the organisation, who are in positions of power-privilege based on their familiarity-competence in the ‘way we do things around here’.  And it is not restricted to them: we, all of us, are members of a herd species and we herd around-on that which is familiar-comfortable-habitual-accepted practice.

What is a way of grappling with Challenge 2?  Here I lean on my experience of fasting during the month of Ramadan.  I have been most effective at fasting (no eating, no drinking) when I found myself :

  • in a community of people who are ALL engaged in fasting;
  • each person is struggling and open to sharing his struggle with regards to making the transition for eating-drinking when one wants to not eating-drinking for up to 20+ hours during summer months;
  • members of the fasting community help one another deal with the challenges that come along the way by providing encouragement-support and being living examples of the kind of behaviour that is required given the game that is being played; and
  • where temptation (especially seeing others, influential others, eating-drinking) is absent.

What shows up for me as being particularly interesting is the power of context to influence behaviour.  When I stopped being a muslim (many years ago) I stopped fasting.  Then many years later on, in the midst of summer, I found myself fasting voluntarily despite not being a muslim and no pressure to fast.  Why?  Because, I found myself in the midst of people whom I liked socially, and who turned out to be practising muslims.