THE FALSE CHOICE BETWEEN CONTINUOUS AND RADICAL CHANGE
During the past five months, I’ve lost almost 20 lbs and dropped my body fat percentage from over 18% to under 12%. I’ve watched with pride my muscles develop more definition, my shirts tuck in flat, and even my abs begin to show themselves for the first time in 30 years.
I feel strong and far healthier than I did a decade ago. Not bad for a guy who’s about to turn 55.
How did I do it you might ask? Did a health scare cause a sudden and dramatic change in my habits? Or did I make small, incremental changes in my lifestyle over a long period?
It was both. And what I learned along the way about making difficult changes — to my lifestyle and body composition — also applies to designing and leading organizational change.
Over the course of my life, I’ve had the good fortune to experience profound and lasting change. Things I once thought impossible I’ve seen become not only possible but inevitable again and again. Big shifts for me have included changes in the quality of relationships, release from depression, and the kicking of bad habits, as well as financial transformations and professional achievements.
Profound changes in my experience are always the result of both insight and commitment.
In the addiction recovery community, the point of insight is known as hitting bottom. A bottom is an individual realization that things aren’t working (that our lives have become unmanageable) and that something must change. In other words, we create our own personal point of revolution.
Bottoms are self-defined. For one person it may be getting passed over for a promotion, for another it might be a divorce, and for others it could be a night (or a decade) in jail. I hit my personal nadir in 2007 when I found myself approaching middle age, depressed and broke.
But the idea that an intense bottom is the key to profound changes is incomplete in my experience. Change also requires mundane steadiness — almost the opposite of a bottom, which is often dramatic and sharp.
Change becomes real only through steady small improvements that aggregate over time. These continuous small shifts, an evolution if you will, create profound changes in the same way compound interest makes you rich.
Wikipedia’s vast scale is achieved in this way too. A recent article in Wired captured the idea like this: “The smallness of the grains, and of the workers carrying them, makes the project’s scale seem impossible. But it is exactly this incrementalism that puts immensity within reach.”
These two paths to change may seem to be in stark opposition — either you hit bottom and commit to big changes, or you do the steady slow work of continuous learning and development. But these two approaches actually depend on each other and share an intimate bond that’s often overlooked.
In my experience, a commitment to continuous small changes not only compounds but also creates almost pain-free opportunities for big changes. We are able to create a revolution because we’ve been evolving all along.
Revolutionary changes set the stage for small evolutionary steps from a new and higher plateau; and continuous small changes set the stage for a new wave of big changes and a leap to a higher level. In evolutionary theory, this pattern is called punctuated equilibrium.
Last summer, I made the commitment to the dietary and exercise changes that resulted in my recent weight loss and health gains, but I made the commitment from a place of strength based on many small and big changes that had come before.
When I hit bottom in 2007, I began working steadily and kept at it for years. I began with commitments to therapy, meditation, eating better, getting my career in order, developing strong relationships, and regular exercise.
The cumulative effect of all of these small changes eventually laid the foundation for a new and somewhat more intense commitment. Like an iceberg, the previous 10 years of work were invisible and below the surface, only to be made visible by some profound changes that were relatively easy to achieve.
The secret of my revolutionary gains was the result of both the accretion of incremental changes and a sturdy platform of habits and mindset that made bigger changes — like losing 20 lbs in a short time period — possible.
In our work with organizations, the goal is always revolutionary change — it’s hard to unlock resources to work with us unless something big is needed. Organizations hire me and my team because they want to change; and they want to do it quickly because once you’ve recognized you need change, you don’t want to stay in the old place any longer than you have to.
Because of our experience, my team and I are able to see a future for our clients long before they are able to see it themselves. And while organizations almost always hire us during some kind of bottom and are sometimes hungry for radical shifts, we always begin our work with small, deliberate, and consistent changes.
We begin with small, deliberate, consistent changes because we know that a commitment to evolution is the best way to set up an effective revolution.