How to provide new experiences at meetings

new experiences at meetings How can we provide new experiences at meetings? Not new F&B, decor, or glitz. Something deeper.

Here’s a story…

A memorial service

Last month, I staffed an online memorial service for E, a friend who died tragically, at age 42, of breast cancer. With over a hundred attendees, most listened as friends and family spoke. When the main service ended, I hosted one of several breakout rooms for those who wanted to stay and talk.

People were allocated to the breakout rooms randomly. A woman in my room looked quite upset, and I asked her how she knew E. She shared that they met each other in high school, and were friends for many years. They eventually drifted apart, and only reconnected when she heard about E’s cancer.

The woman looked really upset. So I asked her if she wanted to tell us more. She burst into tears. “We found out we had breast cancer at the same time, and both went into treatment.” She sobbed harder. And then she cried out, “But I survived. I’m OK.”

We talked a little about her guilt at surviving. We gave her the gift of listening. Afterwards, she looked better, and perhaps she felt a little better too.

New experiences

We gave the woman an opening to share her feelings of guilt. She gained a new experience, one that I think was significant to her.

It was also a significant new experience for me. At the start of the breakout, I had no idea what would happen. I felt happy to be able to give this woman a place to voice her feelings. It’s the kind of work I love to do, my ikigai.

Providing new experiences at meetings can be as simple as this.

Creating environments and opportunities for new experiences to happen.

Fear of new experiences

To an infant, all experiences are new. Rapidly though, as we grow older, experiences repeat and they become comfortable and familiar. It’s tempting to desire to try and relive old, pleasant experiences, rather than seek out new ones. That’s understandable. New experiences can be scary. Not only for the person experiencing them, but also for society. As D.H. Lawrence said a hundred years ago:

“The world fears a new experience more than it fears anything. Because a new experience displaces so many old experiences…The world doesn’t fear a new idea. It can pigeon-hole any idea. But it can’t pigeon-hole a real new experience.”
D. H. Lawrence, Studies in Classic American Literature

This universal fear is the reason the meeting industry continues to struggle with incorporating new experiences into events. Often, we sidestep the issue and tell ourselves that some novel venue, decor, food and beverage, or lighting will provide attendees with “a new experience”.

We choose to forget that magic happens outside one’s comfort zone.

And another opportunity for providing meaningful new experiences at an event is missed.

The alternative? Be brave, and explore and implement the practical suggestions below!

How to provide valuable new experiences at meetings

There’s a simple answer to the question: “How can we provide valuable new experiences at meetings?”

It requires a shift of perspective. At traditional meetings, it’s assumed that the meeting conveners are responsible for specific new experiences. This implies that the attendees are passive receivers of the program. They have no role in its creation. At traditional meeting after meeting, the onus is solely on the conveners to provide valuable new experiences. The temptation is to come up with cosmetic changes that, while possibly entertaining to some degree, do not fundamentally change what happens at the event.

Here’s what to do instead.

Instead of dreaming up changes to the physical environment of the meeting — the F&B, decor, etc. — provide a process environment that supports and encourages appropriate new interpersonal experiences around the content they want and need.

Doing this makes the participants co-creators of experiences that matter to them.

And doing this isn’t hard! I, and many others, have been designing and facilitating such meeting environments for decades. Here are the books I recommend that explain what you need to know and how to implement. And here’s how to make it easier for attendees to risk having new experiences at your event.

If you want to know how well this works, take a look at the randomly chosen comments that participants have made about my events over the last thirty years, and that appear in the sidebar of this blog.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating.

If I can help you in any way create an environment for new experiences at your meetings, don’t hesitate to get in touch.

Original image attribution: Flickr user tauw under CC BY-NC 2.0 license

Achieve success one small step at a time

achieve success one small step
I’ve written frequently about facilitating change. Despite attempting to practice what I preach, I still sometimes fail to create a desired change in my life. Here are two recent examples that led me to realize that I need to achieve success one small step at a time.

1) Meditation and gratitude practice

For 25 years, I’ve been a member of a small local consultants group that meets monthly. Recently I’ve been facilitating a set of meetings to work on changes we want to make in our lives. This involves figuring out what they are, and supporting each other in making these changes a reality.

To model the process, I went through it myself first with our group. Two of the changes I wish to make are maintaining a daily meditation practice (something I’ve been struggling with for years), and creating a daily gratitude practice.

My group made two good suggestions for creating these desired changes:

  1. To maintain my daily meditation practice, I committed to meditating for a minimum of five minutes per day without fail. This is much shorter than my old time goal. I also gained a group buddy who wanted to meditate more frequently. We would send each other an email when we’d completed our daily meditation, helping us to keep on track.
  2. For a gratitude practice, I decided to write down daily three things for which I was grateful. I found some small cards and a box for them, and kept these on my desk.

I have been able to faithfully maintain my meditation practice since our last group meeting. Hopefully, this change will become a habit for me. However, I started to miss days for the gratitude practice. This was a little upsetting, and I kept trying, unsuccessfully, to get back on track.

I realized that attempting to make both changes simultaneously was a barrier to complete success. So I’ve dropped the gratitude practice writing. (I still try to notice moments for gratitude when they arise, and I’m getting better at this.)

My goal now is to work on maintaining my daily meditation practice until it becomes a solid and permanent change. At some point I may increase the minimum time I meditate. Once I feel secure in this change, I will begin work on maintaining a daily gratitude practice.

One success out of two is an improvement! One small step at a time.

2) Tying my shoes

Don’t laugh! OK, laugh if you want; I don’t mind.

My physical therapist recently showed me a cool new way to tie my shoes. (If you don’t want to learn it, feel free to skip the next bit.) When I was a kid, my mum taught me the most common method, as shown in the first 30 seconds of this video.

one small step

The above knot is easy to untie by pulling either lace end. However, over the years, I found that it would occasionally unexpectedly untie. So I added tying the two loops in a half knot. The resulting knot doesn’t spontaneously untie, but you can’t just pull a lace end to untie your shoe; you have to untie the half knot first.

Last month, while fitting some orthotics into my brand new running shoes, my physical therapist saw how I was tying my shoes. She suggested a better method, with one extra step. Watch it in the second half of the same video.

Changing something I’ve done the same way for 60+ years isn’t a piece of cake. But I found it fairly easy to get in the habit of tying the thick laces in my running shoes the new way.

However, the skinny laces in my everyday sneakers are another matter. For some reason, it’s much harder for me to add the extra step with these laces. I got frustrated trying to tie my sneakers in the new way, and it was affecting my running shoe tying muscle memory.

So, instead of trying to make the change in two different places, I decided to give up the new method for my sneakers. Using the new method, but only to my running shoes, is becoming more and more automatic. And I have no problem staying with my childhood method for my sneakers.

Over time, I hope that typing my running shoes the new way will become completely automatic. I’ll have successfully made one small change. Then it will be time for me to work on adding the change to tying my sneakers, achieving success one small step at a time.

Jerry Weinberg’s take

I’ve learned so much from my late mentor Jerry Weinberg. And he had something to say about achieving success one small step at a time. Jerry was a consultant to Ford on the ill-fated Edsel. As he recalls in his jewel of a book, The Secrets of Consulting, the Edsel project was a great triumph. Ford “…installed some terrific new computer systems that ultimately were adopted by the entire auto industry.”

What Jerry realized, twenty-five years later, was that the Edsel was a flop because Ford, scared of all the “better ideas” put all of them into one car. “That approach guarantees that even if each one of the individual ideas is terrific, the result will be a debacle.”

From this experience he derived The Edsel Edict.

“If you must have something new, take one, not two.”

In other words, achieve success one small step at a time.

One small step

Have you tried to make changes in your life and, like me, sometimes failed? Perhaps reducing the number of simultaneous changes you attempt may help you achieve success one small step at a time.

Image “one step behind” by Andreas Schalk under CC BY 2.0 license

The liberation of ignoring sunk costs

ignoring sunk costs Are you stuck in a career or life that you are reluctant to leave because it would involve ignoring sunk costs? I frequently meet people who are, and I certainly understand the temptation. Here’s the story of how I liberated my life by ignoring sunk costs. Perhaps it will inspire you to do the same?

The first twenty-five years of my life

My early education environment fed me a fire hose of information that my schools decided I should learn. Somehow, I maintained an intense curiosity to understand the world. So it’s not surprising that I gravitated to studying physics. I ended up with a Ph.D. in experimental high-energy particle physics at the tender age of 25.

I could have stayed in the field, probably got tenure, and been a physicist the rest of my life.

Instead, having fallen in love with Vermont, I left the world of high-energy particle accelerators and multiyear Big Science experiments, never to return. Although some of my experience prepared me for subsequent careers in computer science and consulting, I spent perhaps five to ten years of my life studying and working in fields I have, by now, largely forgotten. Five to ten years of sunk costs.

But no regrets. Although nothing to do with my absence, the field of experimental high-energy physics yielded little interesting progress over the last forty years. I’m glad I left it.

A visit to Korea

In 1996, my family and I visited Korea. Everywhere we went, people asked my profession. They were astounded when I told them I had recently given up being a college professor to concentrate on information technology consulting. In Korea, being a college professor was the highest status you could have. (The two college professors with whom we were staying had their graduate students pick us up at the airport and ferry us around.) The idea that I would give up college teaching to pursue a different career was incomprehensible.

Perhaps if I’d been born Korean and followed the same educational path, my high status would have seduced me, and I would never have left academia. Status is a big reason why people cling to jobs that they hate. Knowing more about myself now, I’m glad I escaped such a fate.

Solar, teaching, and consulting

New careers followed. Abandoning each one required ignoring my associated sunk costs. Yet, in retrospect, there was always learning that fed my future. Managing a solar manufacturing company taught me much about business, which proved vital to my later consulting career. And teaching computer science for ten years helped me slowly become a better teacher, eventually discarding the broadcast-style teaching modalities I had experienced and unconsciously assumed.

Meanwhile, in my spare time…

Ever since I was a graduate student, I’ve felt drawn to bring people together around topics and issues they had in common. I spent most of the next thirty years doing this as an unpaid volunteer in my spare time. My only reward was the mysterious pleasure of feeling good about what I was doing.

What I didn’t realize was that, during these decades I was learning a great deal about successful and unsuccessful ways to facilitate group connection and fruitful learning. Figuring out ways to make the fundamental human act of meeting better, motivated by nothing more than the pleasure it gave me, led me to write a book about what I had learned.

To my surprise, when I published Conferences That Work: Creating Events That People Love in 2009, I found myself professionally involved in the meeting industry.

It took me half a century, but I finally figured out (for now) what I love to do. And organizations pay me to do it!

Are you stuck?

Are you stuck in a career or life choice that you are reluctant to leave because you would have to ignore sunk costs? Ultimately it’s your choice, of course. For me, being able to walk away from the learning, experience, and status I’ve achieved in various realms has been worth it. If my story hasn’t convinced you, I’ll close with Seth Godin’s thoughts on the subject:

“‘Ignore sunk costs’ is the critical lesson of useful decision making…

…Creativity is the generous act of solving an interesting problem on behalf of someone else. It’s a chance to take emotional and intellectual risks with generosity.

Do that often enough and you can create a practice around it. It’s not about being gifted or touched by the muse. Instead, our creative practice (whether you’re a painter, a coach or a fundraiser) is a commitment to the problems in front of us and the people who will benefit from a useful solution to them.”
Seth Godin, Sunk costs, creativity and your Practice

Have you ignored your sunk costs, and walked away from a career or life choice? Share your story in the comments below!

Image attribution: Flickr user Falco Ermert, under CC license Attribution 2.0.

Successful change requires integration and practice

integration practice I find Virginia Satir’s change model to be the most useful of the many models of change. There’s a crucial fifth stage in Satir’s model that people often neglect: the integration and practice phase.

integration and practice
The hero’s journey shortchanges change

Why do people overlook the importance of integration and practice? Well, the hero’s journey is a common way we picture how change occurs. A hero goes on an adventure, is victorious in a decisive crisis, and comes home changed or transformed.

At the end of the hero’s journey, everyone involved, just like in fairy tales, “live happily ever after”.

Integration and practice is absent from this monomyth version of change.

Integration and practice is a vital component of change

In reality, integration and practice are vital components of change. You’ve probably experienced moments in your life when you realized that something was or was about to be different: the fourth stage transforming idea/event of Satir’s model of change. I certainly have.

Typically, however, such moments of insight or awareness do not lead to instantaneous change. Think about the times you’ve realized you can/have to/want to make a change in your life.

Some stories about working on change

Here are three stories about working on change in my life:

Losing weight.

Meditating daily.

Asking for help.

Each story includes the awakening moment(s), followed by integration and practice.

Even when we incorporate integration and practice, successful change isn’t guaranteed. Though eating mindfully has maintained my weight loss for 5 years, and I’m now good at asking for help, I still struggle to meditate daily.

As Jerry Weinberg said in his wonderful book Becoming a Change Artist:

Change requires patience. John Stevens tells this story from the martial arts:

Once, a young man petitioned a great swordsman to admit him as a disciple. “I’ll act as your live-in servant and train ceaselessly. How long will it take me to learn everything?”

“At least ten years,” the master replied.

“That’s too long,” the young man protested. “Suppose I work twice as hard as everyone else. Then how long will it take?”

“Thirty years,” the master shot back.

“What do you mean?” the anguished student exclaimed. “I’ll do anything to master swordsmanship as quickly as possible!”

“In that case,” the master said sharply, “you will need fifty years. A person in such a hurry will be a poor student.”‘

Practicing to become a change artist

We all probably hope that implementing change in our lives won’t take decades of integration and practice. So, are there ways we can practice getting better at facilitating change?

Why, yes, suggests Jerry Weinberg!

The title of Chapter 6 of Becoming a Change Artist is “Practicing to Become a Change Artist”.

In it he makes simple suggestions on how we can practice implementing change in our lives, and, in the process, become more open to and expert in facilitating change for others and ourselves.

‘The purpose is to launch your career as a change artist by experiencing some of the theoretical learnings in the “real world,” but in as small and safe a way as possible.’

Here are some exercises Jerry recommends:

  • Go to work in a different way tomorrow.
  • Make a different lunch every day, or make the same lunch a different way.
  • Brush your teeth in a different order.
  • Instead of trying to change something, sit back, listen, and observe. Notice your urge to change things and what happens when you don’t do anything about your urges.
  • Pick one habit that keeps you from being fully present, and focus on reshaping that habit in all your interactions.

Why not try some of these yourself? I enjoy this challenge!

Practicing how to implement change in small ways in our daily lives can help us improve how we facilitate change. Put another way, concentrating on the process of facilitating change, rather than the product or outcome is the way to go.

Image attribution: Close up of a girl training inside a boxing ring by Jacob Lund from Noun Project


How do you facilitate change? In this occasional series, we explore various aspects of facilitating individual and group change.

On our different responses to adversity

responses to adsversity We all have different responses to adversity, and none of them are “wrong”.

I write this post a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, sparked by the personal experience of an old friend, psychotherapist and author Nancy Leach. She shared the following:

This was the journey

I thought I had successfully managed my emotional wellbeing through almost a year and a half separation from my daughter and grandson, who live in California. I was deeply sad at times, but phone calls, texting and FaceTime usually took the edge off and so I carried on. I was grateful that I and my Toronto family were safe and well, and that I not only love my husband but like him and enjoy his company. The addition of an 8-week-old puppy just before Christmas kept us both incredibly busy and provided many moments of unbridled joy.

Then there was an emergency in the extended California family and in response I hopped on a plane. Twelve hours and two flights later, my daughter and I fell into each other’s arms. I was not surprised to feel a tsunami of love and relief; I was well aware that I was suffering without physical proximity. But I expected the pain of the past year to resolve itself quickly. I’m someone who feels intensely, and I tend to mine feeling for insight, so I figured I was pretty-much in touch with my inner state.

It therefore took me by surprise, when a few days later we stopped on the road to talk over the fence with a neighbour. “You must be so happy to be together after all this time” said she. A lump suddenly appeared in my throat and tears came to my eyes. “How was it to be in airports?” she asked, to which I replied, “It was a little crazy, but I didn’t care…” Deep breath as I struggled to let the grief move through me. “I would have walked here.” Sheltered in the soft and deep silence of a redwood forest and in the company of the two I had missed so much, my very cells were releasing the cumulative sadness of more than a year.

It wasn’t until at least a week later that I felt I had fully “metabolized” the loss of a pandemic shutdown. My daughter is of very similar sensibility and often conceptualizes and better articulates an experience we share. She commented that it was almost as if she had been gaslighting herself, telling herself she was okay when she was not.

Of course, we need to “carry on” even when conditions are far from optimal. But I’m sharing this because I wonder how many of us have convinced ourselves that because no family member has been incapacitated with Covid or we haven’t lost our job or aren’t devastated at the impact on a vulnerable child we are doing okay. My “suffering” was but a small fraction of what so many people have endured, and I simply didn’t realize how much ground I had lost.

Well, what is ground but an illusion? The deeper message is one that is always with us, but we don’t always want to acknowledge. When we investigate the nuances of our suffering, we come face to face with the reality that any certainty we feel about life is an illusion. Throughout our lives, our hopes, dreams, plans, even parts of us that identify with a certain narrative or condition must die. In these small deaths is a reminder of the fragility of the “self” we have so painstakingly built over this lifetime – and the reality of the impermanence of all things.

We don’t like to be reminded of our death and despite the passing of each moment, sadness or joy, we cling to all vestiges of what seems to endure. But in the end, we cannot change the law of impermanence; we can only strive to make peace with it. As the worst of the pandemic restrictions ease, I hope I won’t be too quick to put that insight behind me.

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Work on *what* to change, not just managing change

what to change It’s tempting and understandable to concentrate on trying to manage change. After all, we are constantly experiencing change, and attempting to manage it is often unavoidable. But never lose sight of the importance of working on what to change.

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The danger of our drive to make sense

our drive to make sense In our natural desire to predict the future and make good decisions, we must always stay mindful of the danger of our drive to make sense.

Nick Chater and George Loewenstein propose that evolution has produced a ‘drive for sense-making’. They argue that sense-making…

  • …is a fundamental human motivation.
  • …is a drive to simplify our representation of the world.
  • …is traded off against other ‘utilitarian’ motivations.
  • …helps to explain information avoidance and confirmation bias.

The under-appreciated drive for sense-making, Nick Chater and George Loewenstein, Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization

Clearly, sense-making is a vital human activity. At a fundamental level, our brains are continuously, and largely automatically, making sense of our sense organ data. At higher levels of thought, we routinely attempt to make sense of situations that confront us. If we didn’t, the world would be a confusing and more dangerous place.

Our sense-making prowess allows us to build models of the present and make decisions about potential future behavior. Thus, sense-making is a key ingredient of our ability to plan and make group decisions.

The danger of our drive to make sense

There’s a flip side to our incredible ability to make sense of our perceptions and experiences. Dave Snowden, speaking about tactics used by the foresight community, says:

“The real dangers are retrospective coherence and premature convergence
—Dave Snowden, Of tittering, twittering & twitterpating

Retrospective coherence

Dave Snowden coined the term retrospective coherence, aka Monday morning quarterbacking, when talking about the behavior of complex systems. (See Dave Snowden and Mary Boone’s classic article A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making to learn more about complex systems, a domain of the Cynefin framework.) Retrospective coherence means that, in a complex environment, it seems easy in hindsight to explain why things happened. Unfortunately, applying our sense-making abilities to complex systems doesn’t work, since cause and effect can only be determined in retrospect.

For those with short memories, the danger of retrospective coherence is that it inspires a false confidence in their ability to make correct predictions. To avoid such inflation of our predictive expertise we need to scrupulously compare our predictions with actual outcomes, and admit our limitations.

Premature convergence

Premature convergence is our predilection to prematurely decide we have found the answer to a problem and stop exploring other possibilities.

Facilitators are familiar with this human tendency, and minimize it by spending adequate time in what Sam Kaner calls the Divergent and Groan Zones.

our drive to make sense
Diagram from Facilitator’s Guide to Participatory Decision-Making by Sam Kaner et al

Determining what is “adequate” time is one of the arts of facilitation.

During divergence, a facilitator supports the uncovering of relevant questions, information, perspectives, and ideas.

At some point, there’s a switch to the Groan Zone. Here, the participants discuss what’s been uncovered, develop a shared framework of understanding, and create inclusive potential solutions. At least, that’s how Kaner describes the process, though the Groan Zone has always seemed to me to have a lot in common with what Virginia Satir’s change model calls chaos.

People have proposed many ways to move from groan zone to convergence, and some of them are flawed. There’s no single “right” way to move to convergence. But you’re likely guaranteed to come up with a poor conclusion if you don’t spend enough time diverging and groaning beforehand.

Stop making sense?

Despite the pitfalls outlined above, we are sense-making animals and I wouldn’t want it any other way. Stay realistic about your limitations to predict future outcomes, and take your time moving through divergent & Groan Zone process, and you’ll avoid the dangers of our drive to make sense.

Mostly.

Contrasting examples of unlearning from Apple

examples of unlearning Unlearning is crucial for change, both personal and organizational. Here are two examples of unlearning from the Apple ecosystem: one successful, and one not.

#1 The Apple Watch Workouts app

In 2017, I purchased an Apple Watch. It has improved my life in many ways. In particular, it’s become an essential tool for supporting my desire to exercise daily. The watch’s Workout app tracks my exercise. All I need to do is to tell it what kind of exercise I’m about to start, and leave the app running until the exercise is over.

To pick the right exercise, the watch shows a scrollable list. Here’s what I saw today when I tapped the app:

examples of unlearning Right now I’m living at home, and the two workouts I do most often are my daily outdoor run and yoga. So it’s convenient that these options are the first two I see.

This happens because the Workout app learns over time which workouts I use and, to quote from Apple support: “As you use the Workout app over time, the order of workouts is changed automatically to reflect your usage.

The Workout app learns my preferences, and adjusts its display to show me the most likely workouts first.

My environment changes

Almost every year, I vacation in Anguilla, typically for three weeks. My exercise program there is different. I don’t run (it’s too hot for me!) but I walk daily, followed by a pool swim.

After a few days, the Workout app unlearns my most common home-based exercises and relearns my new routine, replacing the top two items on the Workouts list with the Outdoor Walk and Pool Swim choices.

For the remainder of my vacation, these two options stay at the top of the list.

Alas, all good things come to an end. On returning home, the Workout app unlearns my Anguilla routine and relearns my home routine.

And if my exercise regime changes over time, due to circumstances or location, the Workout app will continue to use its learn-unlearn-relearn routine to display the most likely choices first.

I’m sure that Apple has incorporated other examples of unlearning into its products, but this is one I’ve noticed. Small thoughtful touches like this have helped Apple products and services become market leaders in a very competitive industry.

#2 Apple Mail

Apple doesn’t always get things right, unfortunately. Apple’s Mail program provides a classic example of what happens when unlearning is not an option.

Apple Mail allows you to file messages in folders, a useful way for me to organize the 94,000 emails I currently store. Trying to be helpful, the program learns where you tend to store specific kinds of messages, and after a while, right-clicking a message will pop up an option to move it to the “learned” preferred folder.

This is a generally helpful feature — except…

Once Apple Mail has “learned” where to file an email, it won’t unlearn that choice!

Furthermore, there’s no way to manually reset Apple Mail’s choice!

For example, let’s say you’ve been working with Marce, a client’s employee, for some time, so you’ve been moving Marce’s emails to a folder for that client. After a while Apple Mail helpfully offers to move emails from Marce to that client folder. So far, so good. Then Marce moves to a new company, and you continue to work with them. Now you’d like to file Marce’s emails in a separate folder for the new client. Unfortunately, no matter how many times you manually file Marce’s emails in the new client’s folder, Apple Mail will forever continue to suggest moving them to the former employer folder!

You will have to move email from Marce to the new employee folder manually every time, remembering every time not to choose the (wrong) default Apple Mail continues to suggest.

This is a drag, and a product flaw.

It surprises me that the Watch software incorporates learn-unlearn-relearn into its memory-limited program space, but Apple Mail on the desktop, where program size is not an issue, only includes the learn piece.

Organizational unlearning

I’ll conclude with a few observations about the wider value of unlearning in organizations.

Most organizations need to innovate constantly, due to changing circumstances. Innovation doesn’t just involve coming up with new ideas. Innovation also requires a willingness and ability to cannibalize or destroy existing products or services; i.e. to unlearn what used to work, and relearn what is now relevant.

Building and supporting an organizational culture that incorporates learn-unlearn-relearn is, thus, essential for the organization’s continued relevance and survival. Kodak was unable to unlearn that film was no longer a viable market for the size the company had become, or relearn how to switch to a digital imaging world. Apple, on the other hand, maker of the iPod, the most successful music player, poured energy into the development of the iPhone, a whole new product area that, while eventually cannibalizing Apple’s iPod sales, made far greater profits than if Apple had stayed with what they first built.

Do you build learn-unlearn-relearn into your personal and professional life? Share your story in the comments below!

 

Some models of change are better than others

models of change How can we work on facilitating change in our lives?

If we want to facilitate change in our lives, having a model of how change happens can be very helpful. But which model? To facilitate business change, there’s an entire industry of well-paid organizational change management consultants who use different change models. And though we may not be aware of it, we all carry around some kind of model in our head about we make changes in our life.

Some models of change are better than others

In this post I’ll describe four common change models. The first three are simplistic and sometimes misleading. In the corporate world, they have been responsible for significant employee misery. For personal use, these models have little utility.

Did I tempt you to skip to the genuinely useful change model that follows? Resist the temptation, because you may recognize one or more of the first three models in a wide variety of situations you’ve experienced. Discovering that an ineffective change model is in use can help you notice unproductive corporate and personal environments.

You can find more information and insights on these models in Jerry Weinberg‘s excellent book: Becoming a Change Artist.

The Diffusion model of change

models of change
The Diffusion model of change is a fancy way of saying “shit happens”. Change simply diffuses into our lives somehow. The word “diffusion” implies that change propagates, perhaps via social contact or some other process, throughout a group of connected people. But this change model doesn’t really add much to our understanding of how change can occur.

The Hole-in-the-floor model of change


The Hole-in-the-floor model of change implies that a carefully designed, top-down, controlled process can create an instant change. This is a common model in organizations, where high-level executives meticulously plan a change “that will go into effect on January 1”. Here’s Jerry’s drawing of how this supposedly works.

Traditional conference designs also adopt this model. Somehow, the inspiring keynote will instantly change attendees’ lives for the better.

Obviously we can make plans to initiate change. The biggest flaw with the Hole-in-the-floor model of change is the unrealistic assumption that change can occur instantly. In the vast majority of cases, however, change takes time. The model also implies the existence of controlling changers who can instantly change the passive changees. Even if the changer and changee are one and the same, we all know how difficult it is to make an instantaneous change in our own lives.

The Newtonian model of change


The Newtonian model of change tries to improve the Hole-in-the-floor model by adding a sort of human physics, fancifully based on Newton’s first law of motion. The concept is that you can push people to change, and the resulting change will happen over a time that depends on how hard you push. The harder you push, the quicker the change will take place. Naturally, the Newtonian model assumes that to change in a certain direction, you must push in that direction

Unlike the Hole-in-the-wall model, this model at least recognizes that change takes time. But what the Newtonian model of change overlooks is that when you push people, they often push back, or move in a completely different direction. Like the Hole-in-the-wall model, this model assumes that you can control people by pushing them in the direction that the controllers want them to go.

Jerry Weinberg also describes a variant of the Newtonian model: the Learning curve model. In this model, an S-shaped curve replaces the Newtonian model’s linear change over time. The above criticism applies to both models.

The Satir model of change

The Satir model of change was developed by the founder of family systems therapy, Virginia Satir, and described in her book The Satir Model, published in 1991.

Unlike the previous models, the Satir model describes multiple major stages of change, and what each stage of change feels like. The previous three models are clearly limited when applied to understanding how personal change happens. In contrast, the Satir model is universal; it applies to both personal and organizational change. It also suggests what kinds of interventions are appropriate in each stage.

models of change
Above is a diagram of Satir’s model of change, which I’ll briefly outline. [Steven Smith supplies a longer summary, and Jerry’s and Virginia’s books go into more detail.]

A foreign element disrupts an old status quo. Then we begin to live in chaos, and do not know what will happen next. This provokes our feeling unsettled. Such chaos continues for an unknown period of time. Eventually, a transforming idea or event allows a period of transition away from chaos, via integration and practice, towards a new status quo.

To help clarify this model, here are two examples of each of these elements, adapted from Jerry’s book.

Old status quo examples

  • You have a bad heart and smoke two packs a day, but play racquetball intensively once a week to compensate.
  • Your product development team has stagnated over the last few years, and really can no longer produce anything innovative.

Foreign elements examples

  • You have chest pains when playing racquetball.
  • A competitor announces an innovative product, and your development team has no idea how to respond.

Chaos examples

  • You start playing racquetball left-handed, and only with certain opponents.
  • Your company’s old reliable product starts developing problems. Team members don’t show up at meetings or answer messages.

Integration and practice examples

  • You give up smoking and racquetball and start walking four miles a day.
  • The company purchases new tools to assist in product development. It also purchases training to go with the tools, and provides time for people to attend.

New status quo examples

  • You discover how much you enjoy walking, and how many creative ideas you get about work problems while you walk through the neighborhood.
  • All the development team members are using the new tools. Almost weekly, someone discovers a new way to use a feature and shares it with other team members.

The Satir model is useful because it delineates the major stages of change, and the human response to change. The model reveals that feeling unsettled is a natural response to perceived chaos. Keeping in mind that change is unsettling is key to devising change strategies that actually have a chance to work for human beings! (Conversely, noticing that I’m feeling unsettled is a reliable sign that something has changed or is changing in my life.)

Final thoughts on models of change

Until you understand how change occurs, and how it affects the people and organizations involved, you won’t be successful blindly applying prescriptive models of change, like the first three models I describe above. Yet again, I’m grateful to the late Jerry Weinberg, who taught me so much.


How do you facilitate change? In this occasional series, we explore various aspects of facilitating individual and group change.

Three criteria for working with others for change and action

working with others for change and action How can we successfully work with others for change and action?

During the last eight months, I’ve been striving to save a tiny liberal arts school, Marlboro College, from closure. I’ve felt compelled to do this work, not only because the school sits at the heart of rural Marlboro, Vermont, where I’ve lived since 1978, but also because I taught there for ten years (1983-1993) and have a deep affection for the College’s rare form of education.

Someone could write a book about the twists and turns in this struggle, but it won’t be me. Instead, I’m going to share three criteria I uncovered about how to successfully work with others for change and action. When I say “successfully”, I’m not talking about whether “my” side won or lost. Rather, these are pragmatic criteria that can make the process of working with other people on a social or political goal somewhat easier and more productive.

1. Be sure that fundamental motivations are aligned

Attempting to work collaboratively and fruitfully on a complex issue? Take a little time to find out whether your potential collaborators share the same fundamental motivations as you!

It’s tempting to quickly accept any offer of help. At first, all seems well. Sometimes, though, it turns out that a potential collaborator who shares your goals has fundamentally different motivations. I’ve learned that when peoples’ motivations aren’t sufficiently closely aligned, friction and disharmony eventually surface.

When this occurs, you’ll realize that a significant amount of the time and effort spent building the collaborative relationship has been fruitless.

Of course, no two people have exactly the same motivations to work together on a project. Minor differences are often irrelevant, or resolved quickly. Deciding whether fundamental motivations are aligned, therefore, is ultimately a judgment call. However, ignoring motivational differences, no matter how severe, is a recipe for disappointment and frustration.

2. Check that people are willing to work

working with others for change and action Watch out for folks who are quick to share opinions about what should be done, but always leave the work they propose to others.

For example, during our campaign, many people made suggestions about legal grounds to sue those planning to close the school. Their ideas were plausible on the surface (certainly to a non-attorney like me). But they never offered to contact an attorney and discover whether there was indeed a legal case to make.

Those of us who did spend significant time talking to attorneys discovered that most of the proposed ideas were not good ones. Because we didn’t want to telegraph our legal strategy, it was difficult to openly repudiate the suggestions. The spate of proposals continued.

Ideas are welcome. Some supporters with good ideas simply don’t have sufficient free time to work, and that’s fine. But ultimately, someone needs to do the work of researching the plausibility of ideas and turning them into action. You may need to tolerate those who frequently opine without offering to do the work — but don’t spend too much time appeasing them.

3. Be able to work well with others in the group

working with others for change and action
There are numerous ways that folks who share common goals and motivations and are eager to work can still fail to collaborate successfully. I’ll mention a couple here.

One interesting requirement is a nuanced appreciation of confidentiality. When you’re working in an informal fluid group, you need to have a clear communal understanding of whom to trust with what. In my experience, some people don’t grasp the need for this, and don’t think through the consequences of passing on information given to them in confidence. Though I’m sure everyone’s made this mistake one time or another (I certainly have), someone who routinely breaks confidentiality is not a prime candidate for successful collaboration.

Personality clashes can be another collaboration breaker. For example, over the last eight months, a few people who had useful expertise and experience became more trouble than it was worth to work with because they unpredictably blew up at group members. Dealing with their outbursts significantly reduced the limited time working group members had available. Consequently, there was a reluctant but necessary passing of the ways.

Conclusion

There are, of course, many other factors involved in facilitating large-scale change. Even when a seemingly coherent group forms to address important issues, it still can be difficult to work with others for change and action. I hope the three criteria shared above help you use your energy for social and political activism more productively.