Niccolo Machiavelli wrote the following in The Prince (circa 1532), “There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.”
That was 484 years ago and not much has changed (pun intended). I believe that changing behavior is excruciatingly difficult. It is certainly not impossible but it is also not for the faint of heart or for those lacking intestinal fortitude. After spending the last 25 years studying & researching both the theoretical and practical sides of change, I have come to believe that there are 3 distinct variables in the change equation.
- Purpose – There must be a visceral reason for change to occur and I have come to believe that it stems from “pain”. This can be emotional, physical, psychological, or financial but in most cases the fear of the known exceeds the fear of the unknown and we take that leap. It is important that we understand our purpose clearly and are able to communicate to others because change is never a solitary effort. We must be able to create a clear vision for the effort in order to sustain all involved when the emotion has faded away and we are left with just the work.
- Process – Once the purpose is clear, we have to create a system that will support us in the effort and enable us to realize the vision. We cannot rely on willpower because if we do, we will most certainly fail. Emotions are what begin the process but intellect must engage in order to sustain it. Think of it as a project plan with milestones and check-ins along the way to ensure we are on track…and don’t forget the feedback loop. We have to solicit and integrate feedback on our progress in order to ensure our process addresses changes along the way.
- People – This is where things get tricky. The most important concept to understand is that change never happens in a vacuum. No matter what change you are attempting to make it will, at some point, impact someone else. This means that you have to ensure that all stakeholders are willing to allow you to change. That’s right, other people will be your most significant obstacle in the process. We all live & work in complex adaptive systems. If one “agent” changes then others in the ecosystem must change as well. The tricky part here is that we are all supportive of other people changing if they want to but not so keen when it begins to impact us. I am sure you can all remember a time you wanted to change a habit or two and others in your circle of influence were not exactly happy with you. Mainly because they liked that you accompanied them and engaged in group frivolity and when that was threatened, they may not have liked it. The main reason for this response? Simply put, they did not sign up for the change. Have a plan and be prepared for push back from those who may not be willing to allow you to change. They are most likely not even consciously aware they are doing it. We have to overcome our own nature because, as a general rule, we seek homeostasis.
I believe that we all have the capacity for change but it is the willingness that evades us from time to time. I maintain that change is never a solitary action and if we want to succeed we must engage those close to us in the effort. Perhaps the challenge is actually to change our perception of who we are and what we can accomplish? There is fear in that because to admit we can implies we have a choice…a responsibility we might not desire.
We would rather be ruined than changed,
We would rather die in our dread
Than climb the cross of the moment
And let our illusions die.
— W. H. Auden