top of page
  • Writer's pictureMichael Johnstone

Why change is so hard

How maturity and ripeness are necessary

My recent articles on provocation and change elicited some responses, including one that suggested some of the stories I used were not adequate because the people involved, for example, Jonathan Swift or Bill Leak, only commented on the need for change. They did not solve the problem.

The commentator said "The problem each saw and sought to shine light and prescription on still plagues us today, and we have no verifiable and predictable solution Ultimately, the only way each of these changed the world was each became remembered but falsely as an agent of change and in many cases became wealthier."

Yes, the writer was correct in noting Swift, Leak, and many provocateurs like them weren't successful in solving the challenges they identified. But the comment also reveals a fundamental and flawed assumption about leadership; that the goal, when dealing with complex adaptive problems, is to solve these problems. I prefer to think the work of leadership is to help people to identify and respond to their complex challenges. Of course, resolving or making progress is important, but the exercise of leadership, while always about making things better in the world, is rarely an A to B story. I act, or we act, and things get better. At a national level it can take generations for critical adaptations to take place: witness the slow pace of change regarding marriage equality in Australia.

I think the key message in my provocation series is not that people like Swift and Leak solved a problem, but instead, they saw the need to use more extreme means to get people to pay attention: to shake them out of complacency so that change work could begin and ripen.

An unheralded component of effective leadership is the ability to prepare people for the real impact of a proposed change. Such preparation is a delicate dance since, like grapes on the vine, different people get ready at different times. The ripening process is uneven and different groups have different needs: for information, understanding, developing commitment and legitimising possible losses. Helping different constituents face the reality they confront and consider moving from it requires patience and hardiness much more than it needs heroics.

Which is why we say leadership is one part aspiration and four parts perspiration.

In biology, researchers have found that real, lasting evolutionary change can take up to a million years. An individual animal or bird might adapt quickly, through random mutations, but a whole species takes much longer. The variations introduced that bring adaptive benefit do not happen on any schedule; some things can take a lifetime to mature.

The examples I use, for example, Jonathon Swift and Bill Leak, are designed to be illustrative not exemplars. And yet they help us understand the journey required for systemic change. It takes time for an issue to ripen, for there to be sufficient people ready and willing to act, to that the status quo will only shift when some other things are given up; when the losses are identified and accepted as legitimate. Time is a critical resource for change, but it is a resource that cannot be controlled like a tap can be turned on or off.

A friend, a senior policymaker in government, once commented that it took her agency over seven years, and seven different efforts before there was any willingness to consider the implications of a considered and necessary policy change in the child welfare sector. Her explanation for the delay was that "people in the sector had vested interests in keeping things as they were because they were not convinced that the policy would bring them any real benefits." The risks of sticking with what was known, even though suboptimal, were less than accepting and living with what was unknown, even though it might bring real benefits. So my friend and her team spent seven years ripening the issue: getting those affected to consider the implications; preparing them for what this variation would mean and helping them prepare their constituencies.

She also astutely observed, " those protecting the status quo are also those with the most to lose since they will have to make major adjustments under the new system."

In nature, adaptation happens by chance, but in human life, the variation required for a change in communities and families cannot be left to chance. Deliberate action is needed. But is not the same as "solving a problem which is why the reviewer of my article while correct on one level made an error on another.

Change is a deliberate but experimental process: one that sometimes required disturbance to get people to pay attention. But once they are paying attention to the issue choosing which variation to introduce and who will be affected by it is a process of constant experimentation and preparing people for the impact of the variation selected (i.e., the loss). This process of preparation, the ripening, is a process of maturation.

It takes a lot to make even a small personal change. To try some new things and to jettison old behaviors because they don't serve you. And a maturity to your fragile ego will cope by letting go!

Many studies show, for example, that sustained personal change such as fitness is rarely "an overnight sensation." It requires calibration of a variety of variables and experimenting to find the right balance between eating, exercise and other lifestyle factors before real change can occur. Perhaps even more important is the need to challenge one's own beliefs and assumptions. Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey in their provocative book Right Weight Right Mind argue that getting the mind right before beginning with diet and exercise is critical because we all have competing commitments, which restrain the desired change.

At a personal level, I have spent twenty years trying to be less rough in my interactions with people, to show more grace, especially under pressure. But grace is a significant new attitude and behavior (new DNA, to continue the biological metaphor) and I had to get used to the idea that being graceful, moving more slowly, the needs of others, was not "caving in" or being dishonest: values that were important to me. My beliefs about my own history and integrity had to be reexamined and slowly, sometimes excruciatingly, I have let go of some older, established ways and made room for experiments with grace. Sometimes I don't myself, and I hear family voices saying "don't suck up to others" or " grace is only for the well-off," it is a luxury you cant afford.

Over time the idea that grace (a new piece of DNA) is a worthwhile variation has grown and ripened; the impact of introducing this change into my life has required putting aside some old behaviors and beliefs, jettisoning some old DNA to make room for the new. But that's a work. Imagine what it has taken to improve the circumstances of the working poor in Ireland since Jonathon Swift wrote his provocative treatise all those year's ago. Change is hard, needs to be deliberate and takes time.

Perhaps Bill Leak and Jonathon Swift before him understood that change takes time and maturity or perhaps they were just impatient agitators who used the tools at their disposal to shake people up?.

First published in LinkedIn


Commenting has been turned off.
bottom of page