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19 February 2017

Three hopeful ideas about change for weary travelers

Written by
Jennifer Garvey Berger

I have a client I’ve been working with for several years now. As we began our work together, I was just finishing the last chapters of Changing on the Job as they were embracing the idea of deliberately developing people while at work—before the title of a Deliberately Developmental Organization was coined. Now there are well-read copies of Simple Habits for Complex Times all over the office, and they are working to figure out how to make complexity their friend as they are facing unprecedented changes in their market.

Their superb learning team has created a couple of little videos (here and here) to remind the business that change is everywhere and some of our regular reflexes aren’t so helpful, and to give them a handful of helpful ideas to hold on to.

Several things stand out for me in these videos.

The first is that change is inevitable, and that it brings powerful emotions that shape us in some way. These videos were made before the US election, and obviously the velocity of change and uncertainty has picked up since the inauguration. Simply noticing that change brings emotions—often discomfort—seems like a helpful start. We know that in complexity, our emotions are often the weak signals that give us clues to new possibilities. We also know that in organizations, emotions can seem out of place or weak in some way. What we find as we help leaders begin to have more productive conversations about complex topics is that the emotions are often the most powerful wormholes into the issues that are most important. As people are talking about a budgeting process, they might sound very analytical, but they can be feeling undervalued. Talking about the numbers won’t change that emotion, and talking about that emotion can help people put assumptions on the table that might just change the numbers.

The second thing that stands out for me here is the hope that these  changes, because they’re hard and because we’ll be wrong so much of the time, paradoxically help us feel most alive, help us feel most human. There is a way that organizations have asked us to leave our humanity at the door—not just our emotions, but also our missteps, our uncertainties, our wrongness. Our being buttoned up and correct—with numbers that march in straight lines and predictions that don’t fail us—is somehow the hallmark of organizational life, but misses what it is to be human. The Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Kathryn Shulz writes “We are wrong about what it means to be wrong. Far from being a sign of intellectual inferiority, the capacity to err is crucial to human cognition. Far from being a moral flaw, it is inextricable from some of our most humane and honorable qualities: empathy, optimism, imagination, conviction, and courage. And far from being a mark of indifference or intolerance, wrongness is a vital part of how we learn and change. Thanks to error, we can revise our understanding of ourselves and amend our ideas about the world.”

Finally, in a world that has become rather frightening of late, I am reminded that complexity and change call on us to be our biggest selves and to connect deeply with others. The focus on Listening to learn, on perseverance in the face of setbacks, and on deep collaboration, will help us know that we are not alone. There is no shortage of books and articles describing the human race as at the crossroads of progress and annihilation. One turn brings us to a defended, protective, small world where we scrabble for scarce resources and let the planet heat beyond recognition. The other turn brings us into a bigger us, a collaborative, listening, persevering exploration of what could be next for us as a human race on this lovely, lonely planet, in this little solar system. I’m convinced that dealing with change and complexity in new ways—using these forces to call out our compassion and our connectedness—is not only right for this client, but for all of us right now.

2 thoughts on “Three hopeful ideas about change for weary travelers”

  1. George Sharp says:

    Thank you, Jennifer. I always enjoy reading your posts. You have an incredible understanding of complexity and a capacity to help make it appear less frightening, more understandable, and, even a bit more simple. I appreciate your openness and willingness to share your reflective thoughts and inquiries. Your understanding and wisdom are a beacon for all of us, willing and eager to listen.

    1. Jennifer Garvey Berger says:

      Thanks so much, George. It’s lovely to hear my writing makes a difference in a time where change really does seem frightening sometimes…

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