change : the january effect

Every New Year’s Eve my father wrote down his resolution for the upcoming year and sealed it in an envelope so only he knew what it was. I’m not sure how the envelope became a thing or what it did for him, because he was fairly vocal year-round about what he wanted to change about himself: stop smoking, quit drinking, lose weight/lower cholesterol/blood pressure. I assume one of those, or maybe all of them, were part of this annual ritual but who knows.

I also have no idea how or when those envelopes were ever opened, or if they just became a stack of unopened promises he intended to keep but couldn’t. In his lifetime he succeeded at one long-term change— he eventually stopped smoking. Given how notoriously difficult all three of these are to accomplish, that he knocked one out is pretty remarkable.

Watching this unfold like clockwork throughout my childhood and teenage years probably jaded me to the belief that just because a new calendar year is upon us, you can be a new version of yourself. I believe it’s one thing to decide in January that your goal is to visit the city you’ve longed to travel to and then you make that happen, but quite another to change a pattern of behaviors that are deeply entrenched, both physically and psychologically. This is why the gym looks very different the first week of January from the third, among a whole host of other data points we observe that supports the notion that change is easier promised than achieved.

Yet professionally and personally the concept of change fascinates me, because even though I’m a skeptic by nature, I believe change is an essential part of the human experience. I am not immune to the spirit of January and the sense of a fresh start in the air, even if I don’t make formal resolutions per se. I long for change so much, that along my path I’ve collected three snippets on the subject that I toss around in my brain every so often to give myself and others a break when the stubborn sets in and change seems like a no-go:

If you’re not changing, you’re not growing.

It will happen slowly, then all at once.

Change is hard, even the good kind.

Whenever I work on some kind of organizational change I inevitably use one of these phrases, and I somehow always introduce Chip and Dan Heath’s metaphor of the elephant and the rider to demonstrate why change is so hard for people, and what needs to be in place to facilitate it. If you haven’t read their book, do it. And here’s a little video that quickly sums up the metaphor if you aren’t familiar with it.

What I’ve always loved about the elephant and the rider is that it helps a team understand the importance of a concrete endpoint, simplifying the path ahead, and then moving in the right direction. It also sets the stage for the reality that everyone in the room can agree that change is positive and necessary, but that isn’t nearly enough to overcome the unruly parts of ourselves that just resist doing a different thing if we have to — and the bigger the organization the bigger the elephant in the room. You have to make people want it, emotionally as well as rationally. This simple construct helps me help teams cover all their basis and make sure they are planning for success on multiple fronts.

And yet recently I’m stuck on how the rational and emotional is presented in this metaphor, namely that the rational is assumed to be the superior entity that knows better and our emotional side must be tamed of its wildness in order to get anywhere. I’m wondering if the premise of the argument deserves some deeper scrutiny because even while I can’t argue with it as a logical process of getting from here to there, if the rational side tells us what we should do, then what is the elephant telling us?

Why do we accept the elephant inside us isn’t as capable of picking the destination and that all is lost if the path forward isn’t straight and obstacle-free? What if the elephant isn’t the one reluctant to change, but the more sensible rider is? Or what if the rider is only ideal for incremental change, but real change — hard change — is more suited to the power and fearlessness of the elephant?

And when did we decide that emotional decisions are not as valid or valuable as rational ones?

When I think through stories of seismic shifts I can’t help but notice a common theme —that at the beginning of the story the idea seems, well, crazy and unattainable. Flying to another part of the world, then the moon, then Mars. Bringing computers into our homes, then our hands. Eradicating diseases. Civil Rights.

Possibility is the work of the dreamer, the emotional part of us who actually longs for big change, to create the world as we believe it should be, to travel off the well-tended path. Sometimes making up the path as its being traveled. Sure, we need a rational side to fill in the blanks, all those details that help us build the mechanisms to get where we want to go. But it is also the rational side of us, the rider, that will try to talk us out of something wild and irrational because it wants to operate in the world as it knows it to be.

Change is, at its core, an exercise in risk, which has very little to do with reason and logic.

I’m not one for resolutions as I’ve said. But I’m tempted this year to let the elephant have some more control and see where I end up. I’m curious if the real key to change is not so much about the things we know we should work on or pursue, but instead things we long to achieve to the point of irrationality?

As I continue to explore the topic of #change this month I’ll keep my eyes out for interesting anecdotes or theories that support this inkling or proves me utterly wrong, along with anything else that captures my imagination and possibly yours. Meanwhile, good luck to all of you who are hoping to make a little change of your own this month! I am rooting for you to succeed and be the data point that balances out the perception that people by nature are slow if not impossible to change.