UPDATE: Will it get easier? Leading organizational change

Did you wonder where the second half of this post was? Stuck in cyberspace near Tukwila, Washington where I pressed “send” from a speeding train. Thanks for your patience; the full meal deal is below.

“Pick up your pen and sign the paper in front of you as if you were signing a legal document – like what you sign to sell your house.” When she’s working with leaders on strengths and learning edges, my friend Sue always issues this instruction.

“Easy, right? Now take the pen in your non-dominant hand, and sign your name again. ”

The group groaned. “This is HARD.” “No way!” “Took way longer, much more concentration.”

“Easy,” piped up a leader from a large, innovative non-profit. “I broke my hand three months ago, so I had to learn to do everything with my left hand, overnight. I wouldn’t have believed it, but now you seriously can’t tell the difference. I can use either hand – I don’t even think about it anymore.”

When I heard this, I got curious. So I did a quick search on the internet.

Sure enough, I found a charming, low-production home video recorded by a 9-year-old who taught herself how to write with her non-dominant hand. She was simply curious about what it would take. She began by brushing her teeth with the opposite hand to strengthen her muscles. Then, she switched hands to use her spoon and fork at mealtimes. Finally, she practiced writing her name… and after a few months, she was completing all of her school assignments with her non-dominant hand.

Will it always take this much work?

Recently, I asked a group of high-potential leaders in the middle of leading 90-day change challenges for their burning questions about leading change. The meta-nature of what came back surprised me.  70% asked roughly the same thing: “Does it ever get easier?” “I am getting frustrated with the time it takes to prep and prepare… Will leading change always take this much work?” “How long before I get better at it?”

I hear a bigger question here, and it’s such a valuable one.

The question I hear is less about leading change, and more about what it takes to learn something new – especially when that something isn’t just a new software program, but means you need to interact, listen, and engage others in different and sometimes even uncomfortable ways.

Why is this question so valuable?
When you hear yourself asking this question…

It’s a reflection of what your teams may be experiencing. If you’re asking whether this is ever going to get easier, you can bet your teams are, too (and frankly, you’ve got more skin in the game – so they have even less motivation to stick with it). Helping them to stay engaged is so, so important. Use your own experience as a cue to notice more about what your team is experiencing, and attend to it. What do they need? To feel seen, to have a buddy, to see their own progress, to get help, to make it fun and appealing, to reconnect with their bigger why? Pay attention to what gets them through. A dose of that will probably be helpful to you, too.

It’s a chance to observe yourself (and potentially your reactive patterns, too) in action. When you hit a threshold of discomfort, annoyance or boredom, what do you typically do? Most of us have a reactive pattern, although we may not consciously see it. We may:

  • Put our heads down and do what we we were already doing, but more and harder. (What we don’t do is get help, ask for feedback, or reflect in a way that enables us to make gains and upgrade our efforts.)
  • Let ourselves get distracted by shiny new objects, or things we’re already good at. (And without realizing it, we let the change effort fall by the wayside. Interestingly, if this is our pattern, the people around us see it clearly even when we don’t – because we’re too busy being inspired by that promising new thing.)
  • Get frustrated and blame the process, our team, lack of time, or the challenge itself (it was flawed to begin with).
  • Quietly withdraw: “I’ll sit this out and let it blow over. If I avoid eye contact, they won’t notice. This just isn’t for me.” (What we don’t do is get curious with ourselves: “Not long ago, I thought this change was crucial enough to invest valuable time in. Now I’m talking myself out of it. What’s the real obstacle? What am I clear about? Not clear about? What will move this forward?”)

It’s a clue that your change may not be what you thought it was. Here’s the deal: We live in the age of the quick fix. We’re not terribly sophisticated about change; we tend to lump it all in one basket. Renowned Harvard leadership theorist Ron Heifetz has identified two types of change we don’t often discern between: technical, and adaptive.

Technical versus adaptive change

Technical change refers to people putting in place solutions to problems to which they already know the answer; it usually takes know-how, or a new procedure. (Or you can just ask someone’s mother how to do it.)

Adaptive change, on the other hand, is taking on problems for which we can’t yet see the solution. Understanding the problem and creating and living the solution require learning, and the ultimate responsibility lives with the team. As you might guess, adaptive change is far and away the more difficult. In Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading (and if that book title doesn’t make you want to run out and lead a change, I don’t know what will), Heifetz and Marty Linsky add this:

“Adaptive change requires changing more than your habits or preferences; it requires new experiments, new discoveries and adjustments from numerous places in the organization. Without learning new ways – changing attitudes, values and behaviors – people cannot make the adaptive leap necessary to thrive in new environments.”

So we’ve gone from questions tinged with frustration (in dark moments, even desperation), to using what’s underneath the questions for insight, to calling out profoundly different flavors of change and the asks they make of us. Now, here are my burning questions for you:

  • These changes you’re making in the way you’re leading: would you say they’re technical, adaptive, or a combination?
  • What does that tell you about the time and effort needed?

Stanford research: How you think about it matters

You practiced for 1,000 hours to get from pulling yourself upright to walking on your own. Leo Babauta, in his ultrasleek zenhabits blog, suggests you can embed one new habit in 30 focused days. There are many insightful studies and stories of approaches to adaptive change; I’m sure you’ve lived some, and I’ll share others here over the next few weeks.

But I believe if you’re taking on adaptive change, you should start with the big money. Carol Dweck, a surprisingly disarming Stanford Professor of Psychology, author of Mindset, and a leading researcher on motivation and success, has uncovered a very big leverage point in learning something new: How you think about it. Pull up some popcorn and check out this 4-minute video hors d’oeuvre of her work… and hang in there. Really.

It not only gets easier, it gets surprisingly fun.