Change is Hard, but how People Judge Change Initiatives is Even Harder

(This post originally appeared almost two years ago in Carmen Medina's blog , but it is probably even more relevant today. Advice for rebels and for managers of organizations.) The tale of the goddess Athena, springing fully formed (and fully armed!!) from the forehead of Zeus is one of the great stories of Greek mythology, although perhaps it is more accurate to say of Mediterranean basin mythology given that people living there in ancient times shared many of the same myths. The story is quite colorful, as it actually has Zeus swallowing Athena's mother who busily kept forming Athena inside Zeus until she was ready to be launched--a perfect creation. (Here is the Wikipedia version of the tale.)

But unlike the emergence of Athena, everything we have around us in society, in biology, in organizations is the result of a long, often messy, incremental process. (Another word for that is evolution, but I don't want to get involved in an ideological fracas just yet--although I do hope to tackle the perils of ideology at some point.) None of our current institutions, whether it be the Department of Transportation or the Cable Television System or marriage or astronomy, emerged fully and intelligently formed out of some brilliant individual's forehead. No, they usually began as half-baked ideas and almost always took turns and detours unanticipated by their originators and early supporters. And, this is the important point, we shouldn't want it any other way. For only through a process that allows a "thing" to react to the environment around it, change and adapt, can we hope to produce organizations, processes, customs, and institutions that actually work, that deliver most of their promise, that are organically one with their environments.

But if you're an advocate of a Change Initiative for an organization or a group, the first thing you hear from anyone you brief is: "Well, how is the whole thing going to work?" The only honest answer to that question is "I don't really know. We'll have to monitor that carefully." although by so admitting you might as well just slink back to the advanced methods lab from whence you came. The status quo may have had a 50-year development process with abundant beautiful messiness, but if you as the Change Advocate can't present the future operating environment as a beautiful schematic in a series of Powerpoint slides, with some vaguely inspirational and symmetrical logo in the corner, then you're as doomed as doomed can be.

This then becomes a real leadership moment for a Federal Government or any other senior executive. Don't be the senior executive whose expectations for neat and orderly change are so...well..delusionary that you force your enthusiastic future-thinkers to become hypocrites and to package their proposals in Power-pointless slide decks. Because if you demand certainty, you not only will buy into intellectual fraud, you will also eventually tear the heart out of your change champions.

Approach change for what it is--the normal course adjustment process that keeps your organization alive.