The Change Journey: Travel Light and Leave Behind the Heavy Baggage

I always pack too much for our holidays. Luckily, we have a 7 seater car which has a big boot so my propensity to throw everything in doesn’t matter too much.

In the field of change work there are many methods and techniques which just add extra weight and cost, take up precious time and frankly make no difference.

In the last year I’ve been engaged in a process of simplifying my work, clearing out the mental clutter and focusing on what is essential for the journey.

If I’m honest, I often bring along the heavy baggage despite my best intentions, sometimes literally: I recently took a suitcase of books to my colleague’s apartment to plan a 2 day change course.

So here are five reminders, to myself and to you, of some essential ‘truths’ about change:

1. Human beings are complex and contradictory creatures. Being able to humorously acknowledge the contradictions in ourselves and others helpfully evokes our compassion rather than our judgement.  

2. What distinguishes human beings from other animals is the potential capacity we have to choose our behaviour. That said, we would do well not to underestimate the power of instinctive, habitual and reflexive pattern of behaviours and our immunity to change as individuals and groups. There is too much glib, superficial talk about the possibility of behavioural change. In order to be useful to our clients we need to notice our own reflexive behaviour patterns and cultivate our capacity to choose our response to a given situation. Robert Kegan’s work on Immunity to Change represents the most robust and practical understanding of the challenges of individual change. The late Stephen Covey (author of Seven Habits of Effective People) wrote: “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and our power to choose our response. In those choices lies our growth and our happiness”. Viktor Frankl, psychiatrist and holocaust survivor made a similar point: “Man is ultimately self-determining. Man does not simply exist but always decides what his existence will be, what he will become in the next moment. Everything can be taken from a man or a woman but one thing remains: the last of human freedoms to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s way”. Knowing this dynamic of change and continuity in ourselves, and what strengthens our will to choose, brings humanity and depth to our work with clients.

3. Be curious about the context in which your clients operate. One of my clients – a consultant whom I was supervising – discovered in a one to one coaching session with the CEO that their autocratic behaviour was thrown into a new light in the context of a very hierarchical, authoritarian history in this organisation that they disclosed. When we encounter challenges as consultants and coaches we tend to over-personalise the causes without taking sufficient account of the context from which the behaviour originates. Without this wider context we are blind to the options about how to work with the client:  to flip limiting patterns of behaviour into new, more productive cycles. This requires an open mind on our part and, paradoxically, a willingness to immerse oneself in the complexity of the client situation, before the simplicity of how you may be able to assist, can emerge.

4. The questions you ask really matter. It’s long been a taken-for-granted principle when working in complex client situations that high quality questions are more useful than answers. I used to think this was evidence of a certain kind of preciousness on the part of consultants. Now I see that something more fundamental is at play: the ‘reality’ we find is a by-product of the questions we ask. Everything is there all the time, the situation is multi-dimensional and full of possibilities: if your lens and methods direct you to find ‘difficult people’ you will find them; similarly if you go in search of ‘resisters’ you’ll identify them. How useful is this? Focus instead on where the client system can already produce the desired outcomes –the conditions and behaviours that create the desired outcome – what is often referred to as ‘positive deviance’ or ‘appreciative inquiry’. Don’t be a fundamentalist around positivity: also identify the constraints that need to be released, the factors that are constraining the natural adaptability of the system.

5. Assist the clients to vividly describe the desired outcome they want to create. We are not talking about a future vision but a ‘desired present’. The client describes the desired outcome ‘video-descriptively’in the present tense – what they see, hear and feel in the situation, as if it was being videoed. Why use the present tense? Because the future never arrives: we only ever operate in the present moment, this moment…and now this moment.  The vividness of description of the desired outcome brings alive, in an embodied way, the qualities that have to be present in the ‘here and now’ if this desired state is to be created. The assumption is that, in any given set of circumstances, the present moment contains an infinite number of potential futures and that the choices we make about how we show up are, in some important way, shaping the future that emerges. The future is indeterminate rather than a given. (This is a radically different understanding of time and the nature of cause and effect: see a paper, particular pages 5-8, by Dr James Wilk based at Oxford University for a more comprehensive discussion of this theory). In this sense we live in a relational, emergent universe in which we have responsibility for what happens.

Back to packing the car, we are off for a extended August Bank Holiday break. How much should I take?

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