Managing Change: A Personal Journey
By James T. Stodd, SPHR
HI to all my friends and readers!
For a good number of years now I’ve been both a teacher and consultant dedicated to helping others plan and successfully manage “change”, whether at the individual or organizational level. Yes, there have been lots of classroom hours, articles written, and time spent in one-on-one discussions. Yet recent events have reminded me that above all, I’m still a “student” who has much to learn about change and successfully managing change! It is said that “experience” is the best teacher, and in that light I’d like to recap some of what I’ve learned from a very personal perspective so others might benefit from my experiences. If you’d like to share the journey with me…at least just a bit…I invite you to read on.
As many of you know, last fall Lori (my wife) and I undertook a major life change by relocating ourselves from Irvine, California to Baton Rouge, Louisiana. We undertook this change to be re-united with our family, including our three adult children (each of whom has chosen Louisiana as their home), Lori’s parents, her sister, brother and their respective families, as well as a rather large contingent of extended family. Of course, making a change of this scale, particularly at our age, has been an “undertaking” and clearly one of the most significant “transitions” that either she or I will make in this life.
So, “how are we doing” you might ask? Well, we’re actually doing pretty well, thank you! There have been quite a few bumps along the way that have required some “navigation”. And, we are far from done, for completely re-establishing ourselves in a new community (including building my practice locally) will be a process that will take some years, not just a few months. But we are far enough along that we can look back, share and reinforce a few principles of “change management” that helped us along the way.
Purpose, Vision and a Plan
We learned at a very personal and experiential level that to effectively manage a change of this magnitude requires that you have a real solid handle on your “purpose” and “priorities” (aka, “why” you started out in this journey in the first place). Equally important is having a “vision” for the future (aka “where” you are going and “what” you want to accomplish). Yes, these may seem a little trite at the beginning, but if you are like us you will encounter so many options, opportunities, distractions, roadblocks and set-backs during your journey that you can easily become confused and knocked off course. Having a clear sense of “purpose” will keep you motivated, and having a clear “vision” will help you stay on track when the confusion sets in.
I highly recommend that you commit both your “purpose” and your “vision” to writing, that way you have them available to remind yourself (which I’ve had to do several times) as well as to share with others. I also recommend that you write them in ink and treat them as such. You’ll find the going easier and your efforts more effective if you are relatively “unwavering” about both your purpose and vision. Let them serve as your standards and criteria when making each of the many, many decisions you’ll need to make during your transition.
Finally, I suggest you have a detailed plan, which is also committed to writing, noting what you want to accomplish and by when. However, I’d suggest writing your “plan” in pencil with full acknowledgment that things may not go as well or the way that you anticipate. In our case, Lori and I spent some time almost every evening and weekend planning our transition and journey, only to find that we often had to be flexible, adaptable and continuously reworking our plan. While having to do so can be really stressful at the time, speaking from experience it’s not too hard if you’ve done a good job identifying your purpose, vision and goals. After all, there are many roads that lead to Rome!
Letting Go of “What Was”
In our case, moving to Louisiana was a big swallow…it meant letting go of the community that had been our home for over 16 years, as well as saying goodbye to our dwelling, many friends, jobs, business associates, not to mention the sights, sounds, and smells, even the bumps in the road, that had become associated with “home”, a place of solace and a place that we loved. And we were doing so in exchange for…well…we had very high hopes, but no guarantees!
Here’s what we learned about “letting go”:
First of all, accept that change is going to be an “emotional event”, so acknowledge it and be prepared to deal with it! It’s going to involve “emotion” even if you’ve done your homework at the strategic level as well as practical/tactical level. And, it’s going to be an emotional event even if you’re the decision-maker initiating the change (perhaps even more so if you’re not the decision-maker, but simply a stakeholder that must adapt to someone else’s decision about your future).
In our case, Lori and I started out driving in tandem (each driving our own car) across the desert southwest with a sense of adventure and excitement. However, it only took a couple of days before we began to feel the effects of losing the “familiar” and the “cherished”. Initially that loss was at an unconscious level (e.g., separation anxiety), then emerged to the conscious level. In fact, I don’t think we even made it through New Mexico before we started touching base with some close friends back in California or reaching forward to those waiting for us in Louisiana. And despite the “adventure”, we were already starting to reminisce about being back at one of our favorite eateries and/or hang-outs. By the time we got to Houston, we both were seriously wondering if we had made a grandiose mistake from which we might not recover. And as time passed, the need to reconnect, both backward and forward, became more intense. Even now, though I live in perhaps the “food capital” of the US, can I tell you how much I miss El Polo Loco!
So, even when the purpose is compelling, the vision appealing, and the direction is positive, there is always going to be a sense of “loss” and perhaps even a sense of “mourning” associated with separation from the familiar and the comfortable. So, as change leaders, plan for it and be prepared! Good change leaders provide opportunities for people to share feelings with a good listener who will acknowledge and honor the sense of separation and loss (perhaps even over small things like the movement of work stations, new teammates and/or new technology) as an aid for helping people move forward.
But listening is not enough! After listening, it’s important that leaders (even “self-leaders”) take time to reaffirm “why” the change is necessary…reaffirm the purpose…and reaffirm the vision…and open up discussion of the plan for input and rework as necessary. That will help you and others readjust more quickly and move forward more readily.
Making the Journey through “Limbo”
Perhaps the most difficult period in a large scale change is the period after you’ve said “goodbye” to the old, but have yet to fully engage in the new…it’s still a “vision” somewhere out there in the future. For Lori and me that period began when we arrived in Baton Rouge and took up residence with my very hospitable, tolerant and generous sister-in-law while we undertook the challenge of getting our new life “organized”. And when you’ve left your jobs, business associates and friends 2,000 miles behind, getting “organized” can be a long, arduous and frustrating experience, particularly when things are not moving at your desired pace and your resources seem to be depleting.
In his landmark book entitled Managing Transitions(1), William Bridges states that this phase (which he calls the “neutral zone”) is the most difficult stage in the transition process because the security and comfort of the “past” are gone, but the “new” is still uncertain and unborn. I’d have to agree! Leaning on his teachings, here are some tips we learned for effectively navigating through this stage:
- This is the time you’ll really appreciate having defined your “purpose” and “vision” in advance. So embrace them fully, share them with pertinent others, use them as your guideposts, and most of all be unrelenting and unwavering in your commitment to achieve them!
- Again, “change” is an emotional process, so be prepared to share, listen and deal with the emotions that come with the change process and are particularly strong while in “limbo”.
- Remember your “plan” was written in pencil, so work it and rework it as often as necessary to keep you on course in achieving your vision. Make planning and re-planning part of your routine.
- Ask for and accept help from others! This is not the time to try to do everything for yourself. When confronting new territories (or creating new beginnings), you will need others for support and to help you learn how to navigate effectively.
- Minimize distractions (many of which might be in your own head) that will lead you astray from working your plan.
- Celebrate your accomplishments! You won’t realize your vision in one fell swoop…it’s a series of steps. But it’s important to stop, celebrate, appreciate and “thank” those who have helped you with achieving each major milestone.
Creating and Embracing the New
Well, I wish I could tell you all about our “new”, but I can’t…it’s a work in progress! But I can tell you about the progress:
- Lori left a wonderful firm and job she loved in California. She held out and found a similar position with a comparable firm here in Baton Rouge, and loves it. Cha-ching!
- I dearly miss teaching at UCI. But rather than mourning my separation from the campus, staff, students and the classroom, I’ve connected with three universities in Louisiana (ranging from Baton Rouge, westward to Lafayette, and eastward to New Orleans), have already taught some classes at one of those universities, and am being scheduled to teach this Fall at the others. Cha-ching!
- We had difficulties finding a home that met our criteria. But with the help of generous relatives we were able to hold out for what we wanted, and moved in to our new home last weekend. Chaching!
- As for my consulting practice…well, while I’ve already booked some new clients in Louisiana, this is primarily a season of “planting” as I continue “unrelenting” and “unwavering” efforts to realize my vision. But you’ll be able to see how the harvest is coming along with future newsletters and by keeping up-to-date with events posted on our website (www.jtstodd.com).
Thanks for reading! I hope that by sharing what we learned during our personal journey, we’ll help you with the change that is going on either in your personal or organizational life. If we can help out more, please give us a call!
1 William Bridges, Managing Transitions: Making the Most Out of Change (2nd Edition): William Bridges & Associates, 2003