Change: engage, embrace, or resist

I am in the intriguing position of writing a change management point of view paper, methodology and toolkit that doesn't involve the words 'change' or 'management' or any combinations of the two. So far, I've done a couple of presentations on the proposed new approach, and had several conversations with people in various roles, industries, and generations on whether it has any merit. Like me they think it has but the challenge is converting it to something crisp, actionable, and simple enough to grasp. So far I've had two goes at writing the paper and after 3 pages each have given up on both. My personal BS monitor points to too much consultant jargon, too high a level of concept/abstraction, and not enough to guide the organizational seller-doers let alone the actual clients.

So mulling this over I started to review my own week. Do I engage in, embrace or resist change? Is it that clear cut – what keeps me positively engaged in the various types of change that I meet in my life? The week opened with an exciting text message reading 'Will pay in American dollars'. That sounded a promising change worth pursuing but I had no idea who it was from or what they would pay for. I answered 'Excellent, but who are you?' I got an even more delightful reply: 'Pls send honey cake mix if you find it. Need 6 boxes'. I'd never heard of honey cake mix but embraced that potential knowledge change and looked it up. So now I know that it's a cake traditionally eaten at Jewish Passover. Some of the (many) mixes are reviewed and there are a multitude of make from scratch recipes. I was a little disappointed then to get a third message reading . 'Sorry, wrong Naomi' just when I was engaging in the changes to my culinary repertoire (and getting paid in US $ to do so).

The next change was more challenging and I think I did start to resist this one. I'm not going to talk much about it but I have collected thirty-four different takes on Marissa Mayer's corralling of her Yahoos. This was without even trying. The blogs, articles, op eds, etc. just dropped into my email inbox sent by various friends and colleagues who knew I'd be interested. The number thirty-four excludes the hundreds of comments each item attracted from readers. At some stage someone will do a data visualization of the torrent of stuff on the edict but that won't be me. (If anyone is interested in the list let me know and I'll send it). I felt my resistance to the Mayer Edict because I am a full time remote worker. In fact I looked at my employment contract to check. It says 'You will continue to live and work out of your home in Washington DC, but your position will require a fair amount of business travel.' Good. Although I hadn't been asked to be in Seattle office full time from June I strongly resisted the very notion that I might be. I even felt myself feeling vaguely miffed at receiving a note, nothing to do with the Mayer Edict, from a colleague saying 'I would like to know when you could plan a trip to Seattle for at least 1 week, hopefully 2.' However, my reading of Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman has taught me something (I've embraced several of the changes it suggests), and I am going to Seattle for two weeks in May.

The third change I met was due to a snowstorm forecast. I was booked to fly from my local airport on Wednesday morning. As my book club friends were arriving to my apartment on Tuesday evening – I host the book club – I was checking into my next morning flight. I found it was cancelled because of said forecast snowstorm.

So I contacted my company's travel department who told me that there were two seats left on the last flight out of DC that evening – 10:10 p.m. flight. After some shall-I/shan't I? I decided I would get the flight which gave me 30 minutes to pack, order a taxi, and then leave the book club members in full flow in my apartment. I did remember to give them the keys so they could lock up for me when they left.

The flight left on time and arrived in a terrific snow-storm. One of the passengers over-heard the pilot saying it was the most difficult ice landing he had ever made! There was a long line for taxis and there was very heavy snowfall with no snow ploughs in sight. Eventually I got a taxi with three lawyers all headed in the same direction as me. The taxi was slithering all over the place and driving about 10 m.p.h. A little scary. However we made it.

The following morning I woke up and found that the snow was melting, and the main roads were ploughed so I got to the office and to all the various meetings that had been booked. As I told the story in the office one person remarked that the taxi driver wouldn't have dared to crash with three lawyers in the car! I'm not sure of my choices on putting work over friends and am wondering about this but they seemed ok with it.

So thinking about these various incidents – all three different types of change I was faced with, and then going through some introspection on my responses to these and similar changes – it seems that there are some patterns of responses to change that I recognize in myself:

  • Things that offer something new and potentially fun with not much risk to me or my values I go along with and want to engage with – maybe even embrace
  • Things that seem to threaten what I value I am resistant to
  • Things that I can't control but that don't threaten my values and that I can adapt to on some form of risk/reward calculus I can still engage with

This seems to be a fairly standard human response (so I'm normal) to what seems to be the type of change people could face in a week. It doesn't address death, birth, divorce, tsunami, etc which takes a different form of resilience. But going back to the Kahneman book 'Thinking Fast and Slow' and also the book 'Nudge' by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein and other research on brain function it seems that responses to change are much more complex than those three statements I've come up with. They involve little understood interactions which make me wish I could rewind my career and go back and study.

Failing that though I'm still wrestling with the point of view paper which I must get out this week. I have some lines to follow. One colleague observed that, 'Change is an evolutionary process for constant exploration and curiosity' and now I'm asking myself whether the 'change' we resist is that which is a jarring deviation from expectation. For the most part we can all handle change that flows relatively seamlessly in a whole shifting context – both figure and ground simultaneously – and inevitably we are engaged in some way in what's going on so perhaps it's much less about managing change and more about how we engage with the ebb and flow of it. In a constantly evolving context can organizations foster a positive engagement that energizes staff and that doesn't provoke resistance by undermining their value set? Maybe in the course of writing the point of view paper I'll come to some conclusion on this. As always, your thoughts welcome.