Understanding the nature of change
My parents have a bach in Peel Forest, a small village located almost in the middle of New Zealand’s South Island. In the morning when you look out the window, providing the weather is fine, you are treated to a view of Little Mt Peel - a spectacular mountain that is covered in snow throughout the winter months. One weekend, when it wasn’t winter, we decided to hike up the mountain with our children, who at the time were pre-teens.
The weather was clear when we set out, but as we neared the summit, the clouds came over, the wind came up and the temperature dropped. We knew there was a hut at the top and that the weather forecast predicted these conditions would clear, so we pressed on to get to the summit as quickly as possible.
Only there were swirling clouds and there were all these steps to climb and our littlest hiker, unable to see the top of the mountain, become despondent. In an effort to cheer her up, (and keep her moving), her father and brother, who had climbed the mountain before, kept saying “We’re nearly there. This is the last lot of stairs”. Only they weren’t and after this had happened a couple of times, the littlest hiker burst into tears. Because she couldn’t see the top, and had not been on the journey before, she was deeply impacted by keeping being told these were the last stairs when in fact they weren’t. We stopped for a lolly break and when the littlest hiker had regained sufficient strength we journeyed on, eventually reaching the summit and the safety of the hut.
Life often feels like we are climbing a mountain.
We keep telling ourselves “I just need to climb this set of stairs and then I’ll have reached my goal” only we get to the top of the stairs only to see the next obstacle we have to overcome. But unlike the littlest hiker in the story above, there is a pattern to our endeavours and if we can understand how change happens we are more likely to persevere and stay the journey to the end.
Let me explain:
As humans we tend to think of change as a stepwise endeavour, which in most cases it is, you do this and then you do that. But as humans we often forget that whilst change happens stepwise, the impact of our actions has a doubling effect. So for a long time, with anything new, it looks like nothing is happening, until suddenly the exponential nature of change kicks in, leaving everyone wondering where the change came from. The reality is that whatever the change might be, it didn’t just happen. In fact it had been ‘happening’ quietly in the background, but in a way that wasn’t noticed until it suddenly bursts onto the scene, shouting ‘look at me, here I am, didn’t you see me coming?”
In lots of ways this is what we are currently seeing with technology, As an example look at cell phones. When they first came on the scene we used them as a phone, then to text, and then to access our email, surf the net, to navigate, to check onto a flight, get into the movies, connect on social media etc. Slowly but surely, little by little, their impact on our lives has been quietly doubling and it is only in the last year or so, that we have begun to see the impact of people being constantly distracted by their phones. Exponential change, little by little by little, then wow where did that come from?
But we can also use this to our advantage, when we are trying to bring about change in our own lives, or in the lives of those with whom we work. When you first bring in a change, or start something new it will look like nothing is happening. But in actual fact something is happening, but the doubling is still at such an early stage, the change which is occurring is barely perceivable.
This graph is a simplified drawing of an exponential curve but it is an image I keep in my mind when thinking about change. The flat line at the start, is the time when it looks like nothing is happening. But slowly, surely the curve begins to rise until it begins to rise sharply. It is at this point you will hear people talking about something being an overnight success (or a disaster) which in fact isn’t true. What did happen was they suddenly became aware of something that had been building for a long time.
I remember when we first introduced a restorative approach to managing behaviour in a school. For the first couple of years it seemed like nothing was changing. We were consistently dealing with unacceptable behaviours using a restorative approach, but the number of incidents didn’t feel like they were getting any less, and it felt like we were spending the same amount of time on each incident. But then at the beginning of the third year, the principal of the secondary school where the majority of our kids transitioned to, came to me and said: “Carolyn I’m not sure what you are doing differently, but your kids from last year are amazing.” It took two full years of a new approach before we saw significant evidence of change.
At the start of this year, I took the brave step of starting my own company. In my previous job I had seen the impact of using a human-centred (design thinking) approach to innovation and I could see that this approach would be really useful in education and other people-centred organisations. In the last eight months I have seen the impact of my work doubling, week on week, and every now and then I get a glimpse of the rising curve.
When I first started my weekly blog a 10% increase in the number of people signing up each week meant three new subscribers, now it means 15. Little by little, step by step, people are hearing about the work I am doing and connecting with me. Each week I am getting more and more paid work. I have absolutely no idea when, or even how it will look when the curve begins to rise sharply, but what I do know is that by continuing to put the work in, each week doubling the impact, I will eventually reach the summit of this particular mountain.
I absolutely love Sylvia Duckworth’s Iceberg sketch. All the things below the waterline are the activities that double the impact of our efforts.
So returning to the mountain that each of us are climbing. We need to see that every set of steps we climb doubles our impact. If we can deeply understand the impact of every challenge we face and overcome, we will most certainly achieve our life’s highest purpose.
Till next time,
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