There are a few things about progress, change, and evolution that are pretty consistent truths.
- Change is incremental more than it is ever sweeping and broad. It happens in tiny pieces over time, in a non-linear way.
- Resistance is only overcome over time, with consistent evidence, ongoing encouragement, and by presenting small, realistic steps that can be seen and felt in the short term even while working toward a long-term vision.
- Culture, mindset, and attitudinal change is some of the hardest and potentially most frustrating work there is. It’s also some of the most rewarding.
- Brute force doesn’t work. Even if you’re changing a process, the humans behind it have to do the work to make it happen. Humans are emotional creatures with egos, values, insecurities, irrational thought patterns, and pride. Those things shatter under the wrong kind of pressure. In short, you can only ever lead the horse.
- There is a point where you have to let go and realize that now might not be the time. No one can tell you what that point is.
The problem is that we hear these things, and we mostly accept that they’re true. We pay them lip service, we write blog posts about them and repeat them as soundbites in our speeches and on our Facebook pages or in our PowerPoint decks.
We convince each other that we’re more like crusaders than workers, that we’re undertaking grand missions of valor instead of messy, complicated work in the trenches.
Change is hard! Change is critical! You must stay the course, Agents of Change! This is the work of the brave, the mighty, the visionary!
And then we expect to go back to our organizations, defy all the odds, ignore everything we just said, and show everyone that we can turn our company and its leaders into the next case study for revolutionary change, overnight, because we’re smarter and savvier and more capable than everyone else.
It’s sexy to think of ourselves as “change agents”. As the ones who will go in, banner flying, colors blazing, and ignite the change that completely revolutionizes our business and our industry and catapults us into an era of innovation and brilliance like no one has ever seen.
It rarely works that way.
In fact, the people you think of when you think of “innovators” or “change agents” – the people who have really done things differently and whose work you admire – most likely have a large collection of battle scars.
From being laughed at. From feeling like they’re crazy and the only one to think the way they do. From being told no, from being pushed back on, from being fired for being too brazen, from being ignored completely and told to just be quiet and do as they’re told. From sticking to their guns, month after month after year even when it felt like they were spinning their wheels. From staying quiet many times when they wanted to holler and shout, knowing that patience was their greatest asset.
They have rolled up their sleeves and done work way above and beyond their job description without a lick of recognition, because no one adds “change stuff” to their list of responsibilities (nor does anyone pay them for it). They’ve questioned themselves a million times. They’ve probably given up more than once. They’ve fallen in the dirt, wondered why they’re bothering, thought about how much easier it would be to just do things the way everyone else does, collect their paycheck, and go home.
They’re often not the ones in the magazines or cited in all the case studies or featured on the company blog.
And they’re the ones who look back, years later, and don’t see a revolution so much as a long, winding road strewn with triumphs and heartbreak and lessons and tiny successes and lots and lots and lots of elbow grease.
The things they don’t do?
They don’t point fingers or assign blame.
And they aren’t martyrs, either.
Those who are advocating for change of some kind often get pretty convinced that we’re right. That we’re going about things the best way and that everything will be awesome once the people around us “see the light”. That our vision is the one true one that will fix everything, if only.
If you want to create effective, lasting change, you have got to check your ego at the door.
That means looking hard in the mirror once in a while to make sure that you are taking the approach that’s the best for everyone involved. It means being honest about whether your expectations are in line with the reality that suits your situation or organization. It means taking a hard look at whether you’ve gotten lazy or stubborn or yourself resistant to others’ ideas in the quest to realize the future you think is the best one.
It means being the guinea pig for your own experiments and being wiling to first ask if you can do something differently to help spark the progress you’re seeking. Being the change you want to see, instead of expecting everyone else to rally and do it for you.
I have to remind myself to do this all the time. It’s pretty harsh sometimes, actually. But it’s critical.
It’s true that change is hard.
So don’t just talk about that. Put down the self-help book, the empty motivational nonsense, the idea that your battle is harder than anyone else’s. Let go of the idea that this is anything but difficult, frustrating, methodical, constant work that will likely net you nothing more than personal pride and some self-knowledge that you made a difference, even if it was quiet.
Settle in, brace yourself, roll up your sleeves..and work at it.
Every single day.