There is this moment in theater and in film where the actors and the director get together for the first time as a group to read through the script out loud. It is very chummy and people are often excited and a little nervous. They ask questions and talk and talk and read and talk. It’s probably the moment in the process when people are the most excited and the most hopeful. Anything is possible.
But at some point the director has to say “okay let’s get started,” and most people (if they are being honest) secretly dread that transition, and many resist breaking free from the table.
The problem is that as long as you are sitting in the circle and talking about the script, reading the script and asking questions, everything is fairly theoretical and clear. As soon as you take the action to put it on its feet, everything gets messy. We are exposed. Everyone is vulnerable. That perfect picture might not come about.
I like to call that moment of stepping away from the table as stepping into the swamp. No matter how prepared you are, you are going to get messy.
(maybe not that messy)
That moment when we step away from the planning table and step into action is not unlike every time we try to enact change in an institution. The director (or CEO) can talk all she wants about what needs to happen and what the vision is and how great this is going to be, but none of that can inoculate you and the organization from the mess of the process.
In fact, I would argue that the more the leader tries to talk away the mess, the deeper ingrained the mess becomes and the more complicated the swamp can be.
It’s one thing to have to walk through a swamp, it is entirely another thing to have to pretend that it is just a another day at the beach.
When you as a leader decide to institute a major change in the organization or when you begin the complicated process of starting a new project, the temptation is tremendous to try to shortcut the more challenging parts of the transition. Most of us would like to cling to that actor’s table where everything and anything is still possible.
Cultural change is perhaps some of the messiest kinds of change that we can do. It involves changing the way that we think about our work, our coworkers and (most importantly) how we behave. The reason that cultural change often stalls or regresses is because everyone tries to shortcut the process and jump to the result.
(With pretty much this result)
Here are some basic things that we can all do to help deal with the transition into action and make sure that we come out the other side.
1. Accept that the only way through it is through it
There’s that great children’s song and book, Going on a bear hunt that captures this perfectly.
(And if you have kids, you probably have this memorized)
The main point of the story is that regardless of the obstacle that the family faces on their way to catch a bear, their only option is to go through it (never mind the questionable thinking behind taking your family to catch a bear). If you really want something to happen, then you will need to just go through the process to get there.
This sentiment is also articulated in the song “Go Through it” by Griffin House, which is more about heartbreak and dealing with pain:
(but you get the point)
2. Recognize that it will be messy
As I said earlier, the important thing to realize is that no matter how much preparation that you put into the process, the process is going to be a little messy. Just like that image of walking through a swamp, there is no way to do it without getting wet, muddy and smelly. The sooner you realize that you are heading into the swamp, the easier it will be to just keep moving until you come out the other side.
(This is what green santa claus does…)
Think of a toddler taking its first steps. While there is definitely a celebration of the triumph, those steps are often wobbly and clumsy. Nobody just stands up and starts walking perfectly the first time. (Seriously, your parents were just trying to boost your self-esteem when they said that.)
If we can let go of the expectation that the transition will be flawless, then we can focus our energies on the goal of the process.
3. Trust the process and remember the Big Picture
If we know that we have to go through it and that it will be messy, then we can begin to trust the process and keep the end goal in mind as the reward. When organizations become paralyzed it is usually because they get stuck at the table trying to cover every possible misstep, or because they forget the end goal and get fixated on the process. This is like baking a cake but spending the entire time trying to get the mixing bowl just perfect:
4. Be present
If you are the leader of the group, it will be tempting to step out of the room and want to return when the mixing/process is done. This is very important. Your presence is needed. I can’t really explain why. Anne Bogart talks about how we as directors (or leaders) have to pay attention to the process because it is our attention (and our intention) that helps shape the outcome. This doesn’t meant that you are required even to say anything or do anything during the process. You might help summarize at the end or nudge in one direction or another, but on the whole your greatest gift to the transition is your ability to listen, be present and patient. (You can always try leaving and coming back at the end, but I don’t recommend that.)
When you step into a big cultural change or start a new project that will require your team to behave differently, use these four elements and give yourself the space to be present and the faith that they process will bear fruit in the end.