sailing boats

Navigating purposeful change

The word “change” sounds fast and hard-hitting. It’s a one-syllable and brusque word as opposed to its synonyms “alteration”, “conversion” or “adaptation”, which are more poetic and drawn-out, suggesting processes that are softer and smoother. To really understand what change is and entails in our organisations and lives, and to be less fearful of it, we need to see it as a process that can be navigated.

For anyone who has been on a sailing holiday, they’ll know that navigating doesn’t just mean directing the route or course of a boat. It’s also planning and plotting the route beforehand, steering the boat and anticipating and facing unexpected events, then if need be re-directing the course. Approaching change as a process that can be navigated is the first step for anyone facing transition. Life is all about change. As John F. Kennedy said :

Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.

The realisation that change is necessary, at a systemic or individual level, can be imposed on you by others or it can become evident to you, either gradually or at times unexpectedly and quickly. In all cases, this realisation is stress-inducing and often provokes flight or fight reactions. People, teams and organisations switch into denial mode because of fear or react impulsively and set out to change things that aren’t really what need to be changed. The first step to prepare for change is to work out :

What needs to change

One mistake that is often made in times of transition, happening or pending, is to think that if we can change someone else (this can be your manager or a team-member) then you’ll have found the solution. This is rarely the case as humans and the systems we function in are far more complicated that this. When the realisation emerges or hits us that change is needed, we need to work out what exactly needs to change. The need for change can be at an environmental level (to have a more open culture at work we need an open-space office, for example), or can be about behaviour (I need to talk more with people at work to be sociable). It can be about developing competencies or skills (I need to develop how I give feedback or manage people), or it can be reassessing what is important for you or your company and your vision for the future.

To be able to work out where change is needed requires self-awareness if it’s at an individual level, or a deep understanding of the system if it’s at a collective level for a leader. As Bryant McGill points out:

Change will not happen when people lack the ability and courage to see themselves for who they are.
This means looking yourself in your eye and seeing yourself for who you are or the system you lead for what it is. It’s this deep honesty and insight that enables change to be envisaged and navigated. Carl Rogers put it this way :

The curious paradox is that when I accept myself just as I am then I can change.

The second step in approaching change is to realise that any change necessitates choice and giving up something (certain behaviours, habits, a culture, a way of doing things, a future vision that has to be re-thought out).

Making hard choices
It’s the act and process of choosing that makes change such an emotionally-charged process. Even making a small change to become more organised (plan in advance, manage administration) for someone who is naturally disorganised is a challenge because it means giving up a more carefree, last-minute and spontaneous approach to work. Any change however small entails giving up something, such as a habitual way of functioning. What is of course far more challenging is when the change you’re considering can have far-ranging and systemic consequences. An example would be someone who is thinking about giving up their stable job to start a business.

It is particularly this kind of change, (or at an organisational level changing a company’s culture) that needs to be navigated with prudent and purposeful planning. Thinking through such a change in a prudent way means taking into consideration your personality and needs as well as other people in your system (at an organisational level, the culture, structure of the company). Someone who has an entrepreneurial spirit, self-confidence and the mindset that they will fall on their feet will be able to envisage such a change in a more positive way than someone who is risk-averse and prefers a steady, fixed income. A company that is nimble and has a flexible, innovative culture and business model is going to have an easier time dealing with the needs of change compared to a more traditional, industrial organisation.

In addition to assessing your own personality, you’ll need to prepare for how change can affect other people around you and set up strategies and structures to deal with that. This calls for transparency, honesty, anticipating and being a role-model if you are the one instigating and embarking on change.

Finally, change can only be envisaged if it is purposeful to you. Giving up a steady job for the unknown is terrifying for most people, unless you have an incredibly entrepreneurial mindset or deep faith. So the change envisaged needs to be thought out. When there is, and there always is, a conflict of values and several different things seem of equal value to you (for instance stability, money, trying something new, freedom, flexibility), it is only having a higher purpose which is going to provide you with the compass you need to navigate change.

By higher purpose I mean having a passion or knowing something is so important to you (launching a new business to do something you love or needing to build flexibility into your life) that you can’t go on indefinitely with your current job or situation. What is important is that this purpose makes complete sense at all levels, cognitively and emotionally and lets you become the distinctive person you are. At a collective level, the purpose of change needs to be aligned to the culture and vision of the company. Being confident about your purpose for changing and the value it represents is essential as it will give you the strength to deal with any unexpected consequences that change invariably entails.

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