I have been thinking lately about how to simplify change for people. How leadership and culture interact to accomplish this.  Organizations don’t change – people do.  And leaders must go first. What helps? An awareness of the patterns that keep people stuck – which are both the simplest and most challenging aspects of change. They often run deep, have big consequences, and are the most interesting territory for anyone leading culture change or building a culture of greater innovation and creativity.

We often hear this mantra from leaders and their teams: “We know exactly why we get into trouble. We’ve had the 360’s, the assessments, and the diagnosis. And yet, we run into the same road blocks and derail in exactly the same ways, over and over. It’s frustrating!”  A curious thing to hear from such smart people.

Good news: The answer is simpler when you know where to look. We don’t wish to oversimplify the human condition or the impact of psychology on business, but being a change practitioner is similar to working on cars and computers: Accurate diagnosis is often the solution and the same stuff typically goes wrong.

Here are the five most common ways we see people get stuck in leading change and creating a culture of innovation:

1) Stuck in the past.

When people are stuck in the past, you hear all the “I cannot change” excuses.  “We’ve always done it this way” or “Whose fault is it?” are common mantras.  Lack of vision is another form of being stuck in the past.  Being overly tied to previous successes or glories may make it harder for a person to pursue opportunities that are unclear or uncertain. On the other hand, entrepreneurs often have little attachment to the past.  Their optimism and future-focus can lead to impulsive action because they have a dim view – literally – of the lessons of the past.  In relationships, someone who is “stuck in the past” is hard to enjoy in the present.  Moving people past being “stuck in time” requires learning to notice and work with verb tenses.

2) Stuck in the Trees.

When a person cannot see the big picture, you will observe they obsess about details and are uncomfortable when you try to broaden their view. As leaders, they love to wordsmith mission statements and tend to meddle in project details at too low a level. They are great at seeing what is right in front of them, but when asked to consider cause-effect, they get uncomfortable. They tend to remain in jobs that require detail. Their big challenge is relationships: They nitpick. Moving people who are “too small chunk” is about helping them learn when to let go of the small stuff.  As change agents, we expose them to “what if” scenario thinking, teach them how to map cause-effect, and have them visualize consistently “What will happen if we do this?”

3) Stuck on “World According to Me”.

This is an all-too-common “dis-ease” in our human culture – we all want independence and to be right.  The American society feeds it through the media.  (I am not dismissing the importance of the individual; I just believe the lack of balance between individual and “collective good” causes people a great deal of suffering).  In its most extreme expression it shows up as anxiety and depression. People who do not step into the shoes of others, who  reference most of their experiences and events by “How it applies to me” or “Does it match my world view” live a precarious life.  They tend to have relationship problems, don’t assimilate feedback, and take everything very personally.  We typically facilitate the biggest breakthroughs with these clients. When you teach and coach them to use the perceptual positions model, an entire new world opens up to them.  You can see  profound, life-changing alterations very, very quickly from learning how to navigate different points of view.

4) Stuck in Decision Paralysis.

Corporate cultures are by nature typically risk-averse. In business, this shows up as indecision — paralysis on teams and in the executive suite is rampant.  Some of this is driven by the quarterly-profit Wall Street mentality.  But when we isolate people’s “decision strategy” – the mental steps a person navigates to arrive at a decision – more often than not, indecision is connected to the amount of change happening around them. In our society, the pace and degree of change is almost paralyzing.  People are “hunkering down” as a protection mechanism, and this hinders their willingness to make a decision. We show them that not deciding IS a decision, and help them map the precise way in which they get from point A to point B (not doing anything to making a decision).  The most common stuck point is “too many options.” Once you “install” an effective system for narrowing options more quickly, they gain greater comfort in making decisions more quickly.

5) Stuck on the need for approval.

While this may sound like a cliché catch-all, being stuck in this way is a specific and profound limitation.  People have a hard time taking responsibility when they are overly tuned into or fearful about what others want from them. For people stuck in this way, it is as if they are a marionette and everyone around them is attached by a string. It is the most pervasive of the “stuck” patterns in our experience. You’ll need all tools in your arsenal to tap this root.  And they will transfer their need for approval TO you – their change agent.  You must stay flexible and hyper-aware, change your strategies frequently, and work to help them see, experience, and reinforce more internal confidence, versus whether someone else agrees or approves.

We have been fortunate to learn from some of the most gifted change agents in practice. By learning to tap into the root “mental model” of people’s behavior, we can move people conversationally from “stuck” to resourceful – in a way that feels safe and more sustainable.  The relief is similar to removing a splinter or toothache. The simple stuff can cause so much trouble – and make a big quality-of-life difference when fixed.

The #1 prerequisite to doing this is to remain thoroughly curious and open. The minute I think I know what someone needs, I diminish the potential for real change. A tricky and subtle distinction, and one every person who is a change practitioner has to face honestly to take their work to the next level of excellence. Thinking about your role as a technical diagnostician can help. There is plenty of room for the warm and fuzzy human interaction to come into play. Just don’t let yourself – or your client – be fooled into a false sense that you are their answer.

When that light bulb goes on, real change happens far more quickly and easily.


Comment ( 1 )

  • Arwen Berry

    As CEO of The DreamMakers Foundation, I work with clients to literally make their dreams happen. We have been wildly successful in helping them have transformational experiences. Regardless of the specifics of the dream, at the root of fulfilling that dream is the need to help them get un-stuck. If they weren’t stuck, they would already be living their dreams.

    In my work, I’ve seen dreamers stuck in each of these ways. Most often they are stuck in a combination of all of the above. I agree whole-heartedly that the best way to help them get un-stuck, as a change practitioner, is to stay open, curious and go hunting for clues. It is extraordinary when that happens. Light bulbs go on, dots get connected and amazing things happen in their professional and personal lives.

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