A new year, and with it comes reflection and resolutions. While few resolutions are actually kept, change comes anyhow.
I was reminded recently of a conversation I once had with a high school classmate who I had hardly seen since graduation. We were discussing a third person, and my friend’s comment to me was: “I didn’t know him very well. And for that matter, I can’t say I know you very well now, either.” She was of course making the point that, with time, we all change.
And thank goodness is all I can say. Not only am I not the person she once knew when we were both 18 and on our way to college (that Leo had, shall we say, some developmental opportunities ahead of him), by my reckoning I am currently working on Leo version 7.0, counting from my first, stable, young adult personality at age 15, and am still a work in progress.
My first four versions came in fairly quick succession between the ages of 15 and 28, followed later by longer, more stable periods. If I had to summarize my experience of these transformations, it would be:
- A series of relatively impactful events and environmental changes occur (A, B, C, D, E, F, …)
- Followed by a specific trigger event “X”.
- The trigger event highlights certain previous life events and gives them significance. While Trigger event X might spotlight events A, B and C, a different Trigger Y would perhaps have selected events D, E and F as being the important precursors.
- The transformation is not a single moment, but encompasses a period of time on either side of the Trigger, and is often not apparent until some time has passed for reflection and assessment.
- The transformation is a response to environmental stress, and enhances your physical, psychological and financial competencies for survival in light of that stress.
- The transformation requires facing fears and taking risks.
- In retrospect, the transformation looks like a typical story/plot outline, starring you as the protagonist.
Over a period of several months I continually revised my assessment of my transformations. It took me a while to settle on not just seven, but these particular seven, relegating some previous Triggers to mere events while recognizing other events as being the true Triggers and accordingly shifting the time periods in question.
The criterion I settled on for defining a transformation was: Would I now (or my previous personalities) be willing to go back to being that person? For example, while I would have little consternation going back to the Leo I was four years ago, that is not the case for the self I was twelve years ago – too much has been learned since then to voluntarily give it back, no matter the price I may have paid for it. (Not all transformations can be considered positive, but I’m going to leave retrograde motion out of this discussion).
While I might like to be able to claim that I reinvented myself six times over, that would not only be stretching the truth, but more like misremembering and misrepresenting the past. While I did get better over time at re-engineering each new version, none of the seven Triggers or transformations were deliberate on my part, but merely reactions to changes in myself and my environment. Life was forcing my hand, not the other way around.
This leads to my first proposal: We all need to more proactively manage our lives and transformations, and to that end, a life or career coach or mentor is probably not a bad idea. Someone objective, someone with a broader perspective on the world than we might have, someone to occasionally shake us out of our comfort zone, but as part of a proactive plan instead of a reactionary Trigger. Considering the increasing pace of technological and cultural change, this is more necessary today than ever.
I had a coach early in my career, but I think her contribution was more in the direction of stability than transformation, which as a new parent was probably exactly what I and the new family needed at the time. However, I do wish now that I had continued to work with her – there was no need for that fifth transformation to have waited 14 years to commence.
My second proposal is that, following this model, organizations are probably in a better position to proactively trigger transformations than are individuals. Organizations are much better suited to develop and compartmentalize the capability to objectively analyze itself, and then provide the incitement to change. If not internally, this capability can also be readily acquired externally via change management consultants.
An entirely reasonable organizational approach to change would be to replicate the individual process by deliberately creating the preparatory, foundational precursor events A, B and C (the ‘rising action’), then instigating a Trigger (the ‘crisis’), followed by events D, E and F (the ‘denouement’) which completes the story of the transformation and becomes the new context in which the organizations understands itself and its mission.
Two factors are primarily responsible for the lack of both organizational and personal transformation. The first is the lack of a vision, the lack of the transformative storyline / myth / context that I proposed above. In an organization this is the job of the CEO; as for an individual – this is why the use of a career/life coach or mentor can be so beneficial.
The second factor is fear and risk. For an individual the risk is typically emotional or financial. For an organization not in financial straits, the analog to the individual’s psychological risk would be the lack of a well-defined strategy. You know you need to be on the opposite river bank, and that the only bridge is weak and deteriorating and won’t be there much longer, but you hesitate because the other side is unknown territory.
One approach some organizations take is to spin-off their fearless, agile component and let them lead the way without the baggage of the larger organization. Another approach is to hire a CEO or other talent with experience on the other side. Or, you could scout the new territory, often with the help of outside consultants who have experience in that terrain, or utilize insights gleaned from your current business intelligence database.
Lastly there is the approach I discussed some time ago (“Having a strategy versus being strategic”) of simply making the commitment, crossing that river first and allowing your strategy to develop over time once you’re there and can make refinements based on real data rather than speculation. As I admitted in that previous post, I am not necessarily comfortable with the idea of strategy as simply the sum of my tactics, but sometimes that approach may be just what’s called for. If your future is on the other side, whether that be the love of your life and future spouse, or because technology is making your industry / market / business model rapidly obsolete, sometimes you just need to face your fears and make the leap. On a personal level this is similar to the behaviorist approach of inverting the "Beliefs ---> Attitudes ---> Behaviors" model, and simply changing your behavior and letting your beliefs and attitudes catch up later.
Regardless of how you get there, personally or organizationally, eventually you ARE going to end up on the other side of that river, with many more rivers to cross in your future after that. The question is: Will you cross unwillingly and unexpectedly because the bridge is burning or the ground you’re standing on has given way, or will your transformation be a more deliberate affair, part of a purposeful journey or quest rather than a flight of necessity?