Why it matters

by Joe Flower

International Copyright 1998 Joe Flower All Rights Reserved
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I'm sitting in my four-wheel-drive at the edge of a redwood grove on a ridge top, looking down across tumbling hills of grass and forest to the distant sea. An intimacy of clouds boils up against the tall dark trees, whipping them with clots of windy rain that rock the truck. In moments they are gone, the sun is shining on Monterey Bay below me, and a rainbow appears over my right shoulder. The forces of change batter the mountain, and the mountain does what a mountain does.

Watching the rain and wind, pushed by the power of the storm, I can't get my mind off a conversation of the night before. At a gathering at a friend's big white loft, I was talking with a vascular surgeon and a neurosurgeon, both energetic men with beepers on their belts and little party pastries in hand. They had asked what I did, and I had mentioned this column.

The vascular surgeon was dismissive: "I'm sure that helps some people, but I wouldn't read it."

"Why not?"

All this organizational
change stuff is just
make-work for consultants.

"It's just not important for me. All this organizational change stuff is just make-work for consultants. It doesn't matter. It doesn't take us anywhere definite. When I'm scrubbed and have a scalpel in my hand, that's when I know what I am after. I can tell you when I have succeeded. I know that it makes a difference in someone's life."

"But that's just the point," said the neurosurgeon. "Surgery takes great skill, and the patient's life is at stake. I am very proud of what I can do, and happy that I can make a difference -- yet I know that I can do it, and I know what I am attempting. Personal change, organizational change, working with people -- now that's really hard. There are no markers, no clear rules, it seems to go on forever -- and the risks are enormous."

I was surprised. "More than the risk in surgery?"

He looked at the ceiling for a long moment, then said, "Look, surgery carries huge risks -- but mostly for the patient. If I were to make a really big mistake, my professional standing might be at risk, there might be legal problems, feelings of guilt. But in dealing with change, working with other people, what's at stake is who I am, I guess. What I might discover about myself. How I might have to change."

"What about the risk of not getting involved in change work, not even thinking about it?"

"I don't know. It feels like that risk is just as great. Since everything around me changes,

I had better
know how to
deal with change,
or I'm stuck."

I had better know how to deal with change, or I'm stuck."

That comment stuck with me -- the risk of not being able to change in a time when everything around me is shifting. To be unable to change, to see things in new ways, to understand what I had not understood before, to renew myself -- is to take part in my own slavery, to sell myself down my own river.

The fear of change -- the fear of the unknown, of things that, deep down, under the professional veneer, I wonder whether I can handle -- is quite real. It is immediate and nearly constant.

In some ways the large challenges are easier to handle. Can you remember how you first decided to go into your field, what your state of mind was when you made that life-shaping decision? Or when you decided to marry, or divorce, or move to another state?

These things at least present themselves to us as big decisions, things we should think about. More often, life gets away from us while we are not looking, in moment-to-moment conversations around the clinic or the office, on the phone, over the dinner table.

How can I drive out the fear? There is no simple answer.

How can I
drive out the fear?
There is no
simple answer.

The complex answer starts with daily practice, with taking the practice deeper, taking it wall to wall. If you have been in the military, you know how many times a recruit has to field-strip his weapon. The gestures, steps and details must be automatic -- so that the soldier can do it under stress, in battle, when he's exhausted, scared and alone. The things we do to drive out fear must be that automatic, because when we need them most we are not at our best.

Integrity drives out fear. If I am on the outside as I am on the inside, if I am willing to own up to my rough spots and crimes, if I am not a stranger in my own life, then I have no fear that I will be exposed, discovered, revealed by changing circumstances. Whatever happens, I will still be myself. As Tracy Chapman sings, "Hunger only for the taste of justice. Hunger only for the inner truth. All that you have is your soul."

Owning up to my true feelings about the situation drives out fear. Here's the equation: In general, people don't change unless the pain and uncertainty of changing is less than the pain and difficulty of staying where they are. So what do we do about the pain, difficulty, aggravation, and stress of our present situation? Too often, we say, "I can handle it." We grit our teeth, hunker down, and plow forward. Sometimes we enlist alcohol, or some other chemical, or sexual adventure, to help with the denial. And the fear just grows. Admitting to ourselves, and even to others, "I'm scared," or "I'm exhausted, I don't know if I can keep this up," or whatever we are feeling, frees up energy for the task at hand. And it allows us to see whether the change might not be so bad after all.

Acknowledging failure -- in fact, studying our own failures with candor and in detail -- drives out fear. The most popular course at Harvard Business School is a class on leadership taught by Ronald Heifetz. His students (most of them not college kids but people in mid-career) say that the most difficult and most deeply educational part of the curriculum is his requirement that they each give a presentation to the class detailing their most spectacular failure. Here's the rule of thumb:

It's not really
a failure unless
you don't learn
anything from it.

it's not really a failure unless you don't learn anything from it.

Breaking change down into its smallest components drives out fear. If we are contemplating some leap into the dark -- merging with another organization, say, or starting a program of practice guidelines -- the sheer size, complexity, and uncertainty of the task is daunting. If we imagine it in the smallest possible pieces, one small step at a time, it is far easier to imagine how we can complete the task, as well as where we can bail out if we change our minds.

Models of the future -- role models, mentors, benchmark situations that give us some sense of where we might be going -- drive out fear. To change, we need models. Organizational change consultants often speak of the "burning platform," a blazing oil platform as a metaphor for a present situation that we must abandon. But to leap from a burning platform, we need to see at least some place to leap to, some place that is not a burning platform.

Learning to let go drives out fear. Call this "treating it like weather." Prepare for turbulence, but don't take it personally -- even when the turbulence is personal.

This last, in fact, is one of the four great rules of life. These four rules apply to all of life. They very nearly guarantee success in everything from love to career. But they apply with much greater force and clarity in dealing with change and turbulence. Try them and see. If you apply them diligently for a long period of time, and they don't make your life any better, write me. I'd like to hear about it.

They are:

1) Show up.

2) Pay attention.

3) Speak the truth.

4) Let go.

Let me go over these:

Show up: Be there. Don't be on the golf course when the decisions are made, or when your child needs you, or your spouse. Don't duck out of responsibilities. Volunteer. Put in the time. Say, "I'd like to be involved in that." Say, "How can I help?"

Pay attention: Listen. Ask for more. Look for different perspectives. Stay hungry for understanding.

Speak the truth: Say what is true from where you sit, what looms large in the lens you are looking through.

Let go: Let it happen. Know what is in your control and what is not. Shrug off the result, looking only for what you can learn.

Like anything else, if you practice these diligently for just three weeks, they will become a habit, they will be easy. You will be able to practice them under the greatest stress, in the most threatening times.

Drive out the fear. The voice of Jelaluddin Rumi, the thirteenth-century Muslim poet and philospher, rings across the ages when I read him: "Don't be timid. Load the ship and set out. No one knows for certain whether the vessel will sink or reach the harbor. Just don't be one of those merchants who won't risk the ocean. This is much more important than losing or making money!"

How change works | Change happens | The five fundamentals of change| What is your goal? | Core concepts | Skills| Skill-building resources | Touching what is, touching what might be | Paradox | Heading for the open space | Habits of mind | Spinning the Future | Coming out | Breaking the trance | Finding a new path | Finding the essential difference | Four quadrants | Psychological roots | Change Processes | Main Page