As a technology and marketing professional, an executive coach and a human recovering from trauma, I have studied change ever since I can remember. In fact, change and transformation have become my personal way of life and nothing gives me more pleasure than helping others learn to walk this path without the shock and confusion that usually accompanies significant transitions in our lives and work. As I’ve begun systematizing processes to help individuals, teams and cultures master the process of change, I’ve come to a major realization: modern change management theory is based on a model of destruction, whereas the change management theory that I have found actually works for individuals and organizations is based on a model of creation.
It’s a well-documented fact that we fail at organizational change far more often than we succeed. This is too bad since change spews at us from the future faster every year. Our habit of change failure has been the norm for decades, and the most common culprit of change failure is attributed to “resistance to change,” which most leaders assume is both inevitable and undesirable.
Change Management Theory 1: Resistance Warps an Otherwise Simple Process
Resistance has been vilified as the enemy of change ever since change management theorists sought to explain its ability to throw a curve into the theoretically linear process of change. The most popular way resistance is theorized to affect the change process comes from an adaptation of Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s theory of grief, published in her 1969 book On Death and Dying. Dr. Kubler-Ross’ big idea was that grief at facing loss (i.e., the As-Is/current state of things) was a natural human process following predictable stages: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and, ultimately, Acceptance. The “stages of grief” model of change has since been popularized in models like the one below, wherein resistance warps the linear process of change, if it doesn’t completely run it off its rails.
When humans express discomfort and resistance, this popular theory holds that they reach a turning point when they reach bottom, and a high point when they accept the inevitable and finally get with the program. Once they’re on the bandwagon, the ditch in the road has been successfully traversed, then the linear process of change may proceed efficiently and uninterrupted. If the change doesn’t stick, this theory posits that people never really accepted the inevitable and refused to participate.
Reframing Change Management Theory as an Act of Creation – Click To Tweet
This warp theory of change reflects a simplistic view of people and resistance. All resistance is not generated by grieving something that will soon be lost. Many people welcome change which brings with it relief from problems and frustrations they experience in the current state. Even where people do grieve a loss of something they appreciate, that loss may be accepted only to be replaced by resistance generated by other emotions and responses as complex as confusion, resentment, or knowledge and perspectives that diverge from the leaders’.
This simplistic, warped approach emphasizes the process of loss and acceptance by focusing on the fact that the As-Is will be destroyed. It posits change as initiated by those above and “done to people” at the bottom. It is a model based on loss created to spur empathy in change leaders at the top, by encouraging them to see followers at the bottom as helpless casualties. It generates negative energy and passive participants.
Change Management Theory 2: Change as an Act of Creation for Everyone
Focusing on the ways resistance drives an otherwise simple process off track is like looking at a seed bursting into a flower and grieving the loss of what has become a lifeless husk. Yes, change requires that old things be discarded, and maybe even grieved, but the new creation is much more interesting. Why don’t more people naturally focus on the act of creation when change is afoot in an organization?
I think the answer to this question is that the creative process of change is too often reserved for a few people, usually at the top of an organization, to engage in privately. These people get to explore the future proactively, influence it in the choices they make about how it will come about and adapt themselves to the new way of things gradually. When they spring the change on everyone else, they forget that they know more about, and have adjusted more to, the new things than anyone else has had the chance to. When everyone else experiences surprise and resistance, they are shoved aside as fuddy-duddies who don’t like change and are succumbing to the “not invented here” syndromes.
This is not only unfair to the people labelled as resistors, who feel that change is being “done to them,” but potentially lethal to the budding change project. Many of the people offering resistance have important insights to offer and are critical to bring on board for the change to “stick” in the end. So when resistance is viewed as a contribution to the process, the importance of which can only be understood by exploring it more, inviting those who may resist into the process early on in order to understand their resistance builds integrity into the project from the outset. More importantly it allows more people to engage in the creative acts of change, giving them the opportunity to contribute (if not control) and adapt to the future before it arrives.
Many who like to create change shame others for succumbing to resistance because it “wasn’t their idea,” but those same people don’t like it when change is “done to” them any more than the people they are happy to label. It’s human nature to resist change when we’re not part of the process, and while not everyone involved will embrace it just because they play a role in creating change, the chances go way up.
Creating Change Intentionally
The truth is that involving people in creating change is challenging so it seems easier to create it in a small group and then “do it to” everyone else. The problem is that this is a recipe for failure.
So what if you like this reframing of change as creative and participatory? What should you do differently than existing change management theories and models suggest? I’m working on it! In the months ahead I’ll be exploring a new model of change management here on the blog and eventually publish a white paper on the topic. If you want to follow the discussion, contribute and be notified when the White Paper is ready, subscribe here.
If you want to get started preparing yourself to be a creator of change, no matter where in the organization you sit, you can start by investing in your own emotional intelligence skills.
- Learn to detrigger your emotions and thoughts so you can engage in constructive resistance conversations without dragging your own baggage and getting stressed the process. There’s more to it than that, but becoming a student of detriggering is the essential first step in reduced-trauma change.
- Learn to become intentional about everything, starting with your daily schedule. One of the keys to successful, creation-based change is focus and intentions are an easy way to focus yourself so you can help others focus as well.
Let me know what you think about this new, and I hope refreshing, approach to change.
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