We like to talk about change as an evolution. We like this perspective on change because when we talk about things “evolving” and “unfolding,” change sounds easy. It feels as though change happens gradually, and on its own. No one needs to do anything to make the change happen – it just happens. It’s like a glacier flowing or receding – a slow, reliable process seems to happen all on its own.
Using the language of evolution also brings a sense of progress – a sense that not only is change happening on its own, but it is also making things better.
And that is exactly what change looks like.
When you look back at it. From a great distance.
In reality, in the moment that it happens, change rarely feels inevitable, gradual or self-generating.
Change happens in spurts – in sudden shifts. People (or other forces) make change happen. It only looks like a slow, inevitable evolution when we look back on it.
Stephen Jay Gould gave us the concept of punctuated equilibrium – the idea that things don’t gradually morph over time from one thing into another, but instead pretty much stay the same for long time, and then, suddenly, <pow!> something powerful happens – and things change. And then they pretty much stay the same again for a long time.
So why is that? Why don’t we change little by little? It sure would be nice if we could gradually improve over time, if our individual selves and our organizations could get just a little bit better each day. Why can’t our organizations improve that way? If we know our organization’s mission, and if we are committed to it, and if we are working hard to achieve it, then shouldn’t our organization get a little bit better each day, one step closer to perfection? Why is organizational change so difficult?
One reason why organizational change is so difficult is because we have excellent reasons for doing things the way that we currently do them. We are committed to those reasons. Any attempt to make a change represents a challenge to something that we are committed to. We people are excellent at commitment, loyalty and protection. These are great strengths. We have powerful ability to reject challenges to those things that we are committed to.
Any time we resist making a change, it is because we are more committed to something else than we are committed to making that change.
Every school of psychology has a way of saying this. A behaviorist might say that the old behavior is being rewarded more than the new behavior, so we don’t change. A cognitivist might say that we have beliefs about the change that prevent us from acting on it. A psychoanalyst might say that the change triggers our defenses. All of these perspectives are helpful. They make the point that we have excellent reasons for doing things the way that we do them – and excellent reasons to resist change.
Anyone who would like to lead change in an organization must first understand what the organization is committed to. Sometimes this is easy. Sometimes it is tough, messy work. Sometimes it leads to a greater sense of understanding and commitment among the people involved. After identifying and understanding an organization’s commitments, the change leaders can then help the organization (and everyone involved in the process) to decide whether they are willing to let go of something that they are already committed to in order enable change.
This can require soul searching, debate, analysis, compromise and collaboration. Fortunately, most often, in retrospect, the change seems natural, inevitable, and not so hard after all.
Jewish communal professionals are invited to join Mark Zumwalt to learn more about change at DFI JPRO day August 8. Register at thedfi.org.