Lessons on change from an unlikely source

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Jeff Cole

Whether we see change as good or bad has a lot to do with the way we think about it. Columnist Jeff Cole with 4 lessons on change from the street.

San Francisco. 5:25 a.m. Having finished my jog along the Embarcadero, I am seated at the window counter of a deli enjoying breakfast. In front of me, a man who lives on the streets appears pushing all of his worldly possessions in a shopping cart. He sits down, rolls a cigarette and fires up. He then promptly engages in a spirited discussion with several people who are not there. Another homeless man comes along and sits near him.

These are people who are often ignored or overlooked as we dash from appointment to appointment in many large cities. I am of a firm belief that we have something to learn from virtually everyone we meet. While I am not suggesting you personally do this, if you buy some of them breakfast and talk to them, there are some interesting lessons we can learn in dealing with change.

The best change lessons a cup of coffee can buy

There are many reasons a person can find themselves in a position such as theirs, ranging from mental or physical issues to situational issues. For some it is a long-term lifestyle and others a temporary situation to be worked through. I am certainly no expert and my samples are anecdotal at best, but I believe the lessons learned are valid nonetheless.

A subset of the homeless population started out in a position like many of the readers of this column. Changes then came at them that were either of a devastating nature or trickled in, one layering on top of another until the weight of all the change was too much. Choices are made, actions are taken, things are said and Bam – one thing has led to another and everything you own is in a shopping cart.

What does any of this have to do with us who are driving changes in organizations? Some of the lessons these gentlemen have to share are better than you or I might ever learn in a college classroom because they are born of hard-earned experience.

#1: Our internal dialogue drives our choices and actions

Dr. Denis Waitley, psychological coach to numerous astronauts, Olympic athletes, and returning POWs calls this Self-Talk . Whether we realize it or not, we are engaging in a conversation with ourselves continually in our heads.

Two people can experience the same change, for instance. One’s internal dialogue spins that change in a positive manner – a challenge to be overcome, I have the emotional and mental resources to handle this, this will lead to new experiences, etc. Another’s dialogue to that same change may lead to a path of personal destruction.

You’ve heard the phrase: "If you think you can or think you can’t – you’re right". Self-talk in a nutshell.

Action Plan: When you roll out a change in your organization, you have the opportunity to help people frame-up a positive internal dialogue.

#2: Do you see yourself as a victim or an architect of your future?

Change guru Daryl Conner asks a question similar to this in his classic Managing at the Speed of Change. Some people on the streets view themselves as victims of society. Others take their future in their own hands and lay out a game plan for getting out of that situation.

Action Plan: Many people in your organization have an inherent need to feel they are directing their own future. As you design a change, ask yourself how you can engage them. This is subtle grammatically but uber-important psychologically in organizational change – there’s a world of difference between having something done "to" you versus "with" you!

#3: Build a toolbox for dealing with change

In school, they don’t track us down and specifically teach us how to deal with changes in life. We’re left to our own devices on that front. Some become masters of being resilient and bouncing back and others have few if any tools for dealing with major change.

Action Plan: Equip your organization to become more resilient and robust to changes. The skills of being positive, focused, flexible, proactive, and organized are teachable and learnable and lead people to bouncing back from change faster and better.

#4: Don’t be caught by surprise

When you are not expecting a change and one comes along that shatters all your expectations, it can be an unsettling experience. Seeing that train coming down the tracks before it hits you may not make it less painful, but takes the surprise factor out of the equation. That foresight gives you some opportunities you may not have otherwise.

Action Plan: Communicate your organizational changes well and well in advance so as to not surprise your audience. Also on a personal level, proactively scan your environment for potential changes that can impact you. Getting ahead of the power curve allows you to surf the change rather than being swamped by it.

There you have it. The best change education a couple cups of coffee can buy. Follow this and you will literally be applying street smarts to your next change.