Seth Godin wrote: “Change almost never fails because it’s too early. It almost always fails because it’s too late.” This is perfectly true.
Many years ago, as we were talking about one of my consulting projects, my father—who, as an HR guy, was one of the best judges of people I ever knew—said to me, “Son, the best time to fire someone is before you hire them.”
Since then, my Rule of Thumb #2 is “Never wait to change. Waiting only complicates things and makes them harder.”
(By the way, Rule of Thumb #1 is “Everyone needs an editor.”)
That said, here is a continuum of change responses worth recognizing:
Don’t take Seth’s words or mine as a license to become a Change Junkie. Instead, be receptive to change (Change Receptive) and initiate change (Change Initiator) by asking yourself what your purpose or mission is and whether making this change will make it more likely that you’ll achieve that purpose or mission.
Looking at Change from a Different Perspective
Let’s reorient the whole question of change. The question should not be “To change or not to change?” The question should be “What change do I need to make right now?” The assumption here is that change is normal and necessary. It is what we now call adaptability, which is how we function in the transitions we constantly experience in our lives and work.
Take a look at the Five Questions Every Person Must Ask with regard to these ongoing transitions:
All of these questions are essential to ask in order to achieve the impact you want, but we’ll take a close look here at the first of the Five Questions, which is “What has changed? How am I in transition?” Then, if you are in the midst of a serious, overwhelming transition, ask this question: “When was the last time I was happy, content, and at peace with my work and life?”
It does not matter whether your memory of that time is accurate or an illusion. What does matter is that the memory is a starting point for understanding the transition you are in.
Think about what changed during this time. What changed about your perception of your purpose or in your relationships or possibly with the context of your work? These three areas are always present in our lives and it is where our awareness of change has its greatest impact.
The second thing to recognize about this memory is that it reveals two things:
- Values that matter to you that you’d like to reinforce or reinvigorate your life or work, and
- Desire in your heart that tells you what you love and want to see as central to your life.
For example, let’s say a larger firm buys out your company. Your memory points to how the company used to be like a family, where everyone cared for one another. Now, that feeling of family is gone, and the pressure to perform is greater than you have ever experienced.
What you discover in that memory are the values of relationship and connection in the workplace and that you love working for a smaller firm. With that awareness, you can better understand the transition you are in and the change that might be necessary to find a new place of work and in life that is meaningful to you.
This is what change is really about: Finding the right place where you can realize your desire for meaning and healthy relationships, and where you feel that your life matters.
Plan for and Initiate Change with Each New Decision
When you know that change is necessary, begin the process of planning for that change. In other words, change early, not late. When you take steps to initiate change, you’ll find that your capacity to change not only grows but its potential negative impact on your life diminishes. Why is this?
I’ve discovered that, as we change, the speed of change increases. As it increases, it becomes simpler. Holding back changes inevitably means we must manage a host of obligations and expectations thrust upon us by situations and people that may or may not carry meaning or impact for us.
The key here is to be very clear about your values, your purpose, and how your team or group work together in the context of the current transition. Doing the same things, in the same way, is not how we avoid the risks of change; it is how we embrace the possibility of irrelevance.
The risk of not changing is greater than the risk of changing. We may think that not changing is a decision we make once and just keep doing what we’re doing day after day. But to embrace change as part of the process of transition is to see that every decision is a new one and that, when we make those decisions according to values, purpose, and a clarity about the desired impact, we move toward those decisions, see the path forward, and initiate the change.
James C. Collins, who along with Jerry Porras wrote the book Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, makes a good point about how we function in an environment of transition:
“Visionary companies make some of their best moves by experimentation, trial and error, opportunism, and—quite literally—accident. What looks in retrospect like brilliant foresight and preplanning was often the result of ‘Let’s just try a lot of stuff and keep what works.’”
This speaks to the fluidness of change; once encountered, we sense the flow of moving effortlessly through the moments of decision to create change and keep changing to achieve our desired impact.
Simply put, change and change often—not as a Change Junkie who stirs things up for the sake of change, but as a responsible leader who both initiates and responds to change. Learn to do this, and you’ll never miss the fear and the doubt that accompanies decisions that take you in a new direction.