Lessons in Change Management: Navigating Penn Station

I’ve recently been thinking a lot about “in flux” stages at work. Maybe you have new people joining, senior people leaving, a shift of product focus, or a change in direction. We’ve had a little bit of this happening lately too.

And while there are invariably always complications that come out of any changes, I’ve found it helpful to just acknowledge that awkward middle state directly and put it all out on the table. To help with this, I’ve been thinking of it as a metaphor that I know all too well: Navigating Penn Station.

The way I see it, the first step in any transition is getting people to the same place. In this example, let’s imagine that we’ve all arrived at New York City’s central transit hub, Penn Station. It’s safe to assume that we took several different modes of transit to get there. Some of us took the subway, some of us took the bus. Maybe a few of us walked. But whatever the path, we’ve finally all arrived for the first time in the same place at the same (ish) time.

That’s step one: Getting everyone to the same relative destination.

But of course, Penn Station isn’t a destination. At least not, exactly. It’s a transit hub. It’s not a building you intentionally visit for its nice shops and dining, nor is it a place to linger for any length of time. Most New Yorkers avoid it if they can. You go to Penn Station by necessity only — to shift from one mode of transportation to another.

So the only question to decide is this: Now that we’re here, where are we going? Maybe we’re planning to take the Long Island Railroad or New Jersey Transit to another nearby town or the airport. Maybe we’re getting ready to accelerate even faster and hop on the Acela Express to Washington, DC or even further. Or maybe — something all too common in any startup shift or pivot state, we’ll split up — some of us will go one place and some of us will go somewhere else. (And while this part can kind of suck sometimes, in the end, that’s OK too.)

That’s step two: Deciding where you’re going (and who’s buying a ticket).

At this point, you might be tempted to pat yourself on the back for a job well done. Somehow, you’ve managed to get everybody in the same building and effectively communicate which train everyone is taking next. You might think that, from here on out, everything else is downhill.

You’d be wrong. After all, there’s one major hurtle that comes next: Navigating Penn Station. And as any New Yorker will tell you, that place is a major shit show.

Imagine this: Six people have arrived at six different entrances of Penn Station, and each of you plan to take the same train out of the city. Collectively, you’ll navigate the maze of hallways, the confusing signage, the musical performers, and the hoards of tourists with suitcases that crowd every aisle. Individually, you’ll all seek to meet your own needs: Finding coffee, finding a bathroom, buying a sandwich, buying a ticket. Add to that the unexpected hiccups: A phone that loses reception, a delayed train, and impromptu change of tracks, or a ticket line so long that you won’t have time to wait it out.

It’s a loud, ugly building that only adds to your anxiety with every turn you make and every minute that passes as you flock your way to the correct train on time. Truly, it’ll be a miracle if it all six of you make it on that train without a hitch.

That’s step three: Navigating Penn Station.

There’s no right or wrong way to get in or out of Penn Station. There may be a few tricks of the trade that seasoned New Yorkers know — say, to stand on the lower level of the Amtrak waiting area even when waiting for a New Jersey Transit train so you can cut the lines. But at the end of the day, getting from Point A to Point B is a never a fun experience. It’s just something that has to be done.

And so, that’s how I’ve been thinking about change management and “in flux” states recently — getting people into the same building, deciding what train we’re all taking next, and then pushing through the mess of people, vendors, and signs to make it there. Who knows, maybe if you make the trip enough times, you may even start to enjoy a little bit of chaos every now and then…


Originally published at Dry Erase.