Personal Lessons in Change

Posted: July 23, 2021 in Art and Design, General Commentary, Uncategorized

Change is a truly difficult process to navigate. To make change happen requires a lot of effort and some level of suffering. Yet, not changing leads to greater pain. As Pip Coburn has pointed out in his book “The Change Function” – until there is some level of pain or crisis, change will not occur. The old stratus quo will continue until it has experienced something that causes it to realize that continuing is no longer an option. In the diagram below, it is called a “Foreign Element”, in Coburn’s book, it is the point at which the assumptions of an organization, actual market conditions, or reality, eventually catch up to it. Coburn points out that organizations that do not embrace real change in time frequently fail.

As illustrated, the path forward starts with resistance. When every excuse or fear, every justification and every irrational idea has been proven ineffective. The next phase will be chaos, as all of the building blocks of resistance collapse. That leads to tripping over one’s own feet, and wasting energy until a transformational idea emerges, and the battle to build the new Status Quo is embraced.

Image Credit: https://10minutehr.com/2013/11/11/chaos-in-the-organisational-change-process-dont-try-to-avoid-it-manage-it/

I have experienced this on every level with several organizations.

In the 1980’s I reached a point in my own company as a lighting designer, where what I was doing was not accomplishing what I wanted, it had become a routine drag, so I changed direction. I became part of a lighting product making organization that was in the midst of transformation that I could contribute to. The result was remarkable. We introduced ADA compliant products ahead of the market, and changed the company from custom house to standard product/custom mix, and realized truly exciting sales growth. Unfortunately, being young and stupid, I did not recognize that I was part of something special. So….

….Filled with hubris and big dreams, I moved on to another organization that was in the resistance and chaos phases, that was never able to get past the tripping over its feet stage. I thought if it could happen at company A, why not B? I was wrong. It refused to embrace transformation, as it was not yet feeling the pain of its situation to a level that would cause it to truly embrace change. It languished for many years, and I was helpless to it.

In an effort to avoid that ongoing pain, I packed up and moved once more, this time to an organization that had made the transformation years before, that had a new status quo that was stable and solid. This was easily the best place I have ever been part of. However, a foreign element emerged – a corporate acquisition that threw the entire organization down the slippery slope of resistance into chaos, that it has never recovered from.

My (idiotic) response was to return to the prior painful organization, in hopes that perhaps 5 years might have seen some realization. It hadn’t. And to make matters more painful, the first organization (Company A) had successfully found its path to a new Status Quo, and was fluoreshing – then managed to survive the crisis of acquisition better than most.

When solid-state lighting technology emerged, I saw it as an opportunity to jump past the resistance and chaos phases, by starting a new company that was part of the lighting industry’s transformation from bulbs to solid-state emitters, connecting tech to lighting manufacturers, and lighting to tech providers. It worked and I had several years of success.

The foreign element that caused my status quo to suffer pain, was the intrusion of every electronic supplier and LED manufacturer jumping in to offer what I was charging hourly fees for – free to manufacturers – on top of a growing number of competing consulting entities. So, I moved into light cure product development, where federal subcontract work was pretty solid… until a foreign element in the form of a change in Federal administration in 2016 shut down every program we were working on. Then, a resin performance issue emerged that closed off an entire market segment, erasing 7 years of development progress. So, in 2019, after struggling and tripping, and resisting, I took another position similar to one I held before, for an organization I was familiar with as a customer.

Not a great move. I forgot that: Change does not come from doing what you have already done. Nor does it come from taking a safe and familiar path.

There is a missing component to the change graphic – a phase of delusion. It happens somewhere in the resistance to stumbling phases, where you find yourself believing you are making change happen, or or part of a transformation, when it fact, you are not. In this case, I jumped into a familiar universe of resistance and chaos, with visions of being part of a rescuing team that would see the organization build a fresh status quo. It turned out I was just delusional. The organization, while feeling chaotic to me, in need of transformation, and in need of integrating functions, was perfectly happy being what it was. My attempts to energize change were not appreciated, which just led to resistance and more chaos. My bad. It showed me that change comes only from a large scale recognition of need, not some delusional do-gooder trying to save the company from itself. I won’t go down that road again.

In that time, I came to my own personal realization and transformational idea.

Rather than commit countless hours in service of another’s goals, why was I not putting that effort into my real interests and passions. The real transforming idea was to reset how I had gone about business, and what I was doing. My partner (wife of 42 years) and I have talked about my doing art for a living since we met. I resisted this idea for 42 years. No more excuses – time to embrace the chaos and stop resisting.

Now I am in the integrating phase, where pieces born of transformational idea are coming together. Where my resistance for years were founded on assumptions about how I might fail, I now know more about what I do not know, and am beginning to see pathways through this. From making ideas into finished works, to presentations and marketing direction, I am pulling together the integrative components necessary to see it through. This is not part time, weekends and evenings work. This requires far more effort, more time, and more thought than I imagined, and is much harder work than anything I have done before. There are also personal demons to be destroyed, and fears to overcome, on top of the practical issues in hand.

This last several months have solidified the epiphany that true change is the hardest work you can take on, is painful in its own right, and fraught with many obstacles. However, the question ultimately comes down to where you want to endure pain: A.) From a harried status quo existence that you feel deep down has a poor outcome, leading to crisis and greater pain? Or, B.) The commitment to the greater effort of change to something better and more rewarding?

I’m going with option B – until something forces me to change again – in which case it is still B. I am done with option A.

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