When change is visible, it is remarkable. It may not alter our course but we might prepare in advance for the conditions that follow. How do you respond when change is visible on the horizon?
I was out for a morning run in Wyoming. It was rainy and low clouds hung in the valley. I decided to deviate from the main gravel road to a 4×4 track that led into the hills. After four strides on the muddy surface, I noticed animal prints. Quickly I assessed it was a grizzly bear, the claw marks at the top being the most evident. I decided I did not need to run into the woods, charging up behind a grizzly that was out for a morning forage. So I changed directions.
Further out the main gravel road, I encountered a bull elk standing on a high point just off the road. He eyed me as I progressed towards his elevated position. The elk turned and faced me, still a reasonable distance away. After a loud haunting bugle, he started trotting in my direction. I quickly recognized that I was a threat and decided to change directions again. I ceased the unintended battle for the high ground without thought and retraced my steps.
We do not always know what we will encounter on our adventures, and we can possess enough clarity about the work that matters to decide when to proceed and when to find another path. Changing directions is not defeat; it is the reality of navigating, and it does not always take bear tracks and aggressive elk to shape our new path.
Even if the agenda looks the same, the meeting is different. Each participant has encountered new information and experiences between gatherings. The world changed. New members joined our efforts and others departed. Our services and contributions have had an impact, positive and negative. We are not looking at the same conditions.
Imagine watching a firework show. At first glance, each burst of light and corresponding boom appear to be the relative similar. Then we notice the different colors, shapes, alternating lengths of illumination, height, and pattern changes. Even the launch angle and sequencing of the shells remains variable. No two firework shows are the same.
How might we embrace that we are never looking at the same thing despite initial appearances and patterns? Even if we meet in the same location, with the usual group, on a repetitive day of the month, and rely on practiced parliamentary procedures, we are not assembling for a duplicate meeting. Our greatest fault is thinking we are convening for repetition when everything is new.
In the road cycling community, innovation creates new levels of efficiency. A fundamental measurement for cyclist is the number of watts (power) it takes to reach a specific speed. The ultimate goal is to use the least amount of watts to reach the highest speed, since more power requires more energy. If a rider cycles at an average power of 200 watts over 162 kilometers (100 mile century), then any strategy to reduce their power and maintain the same speed or achieve a higher speed while maintaining the same power gets discussed. Riding in a group and benefiting from the inherent draft is a highly practiced strategy. Done correctly, one can achieve a 30% reduction in power output on the right terrain. First lesson, when the conditions are correct and we work together we are faster as a group than as an individual.
Over a decade ago, the idea of ‘marginal gains’ was added to the cycling lexicon. Teams started seeking minor changes and additions that resulted in micro impacts on an athlete’s performance. When bundled together, a measurable net positive was evident. Strategies included, taking personal mattresses to multi-week races like the Tour de France so an athlete slept on their bed each night. Mobile kitchens and chefs were hired to prepare the athlete’s breakfast and dinner, allowing for individual dietary restrictions and meals that met the extraordinary caloric needs of a tour cyclist. Food is ready when the cyclists required, not when the hotel’s restaurant has time.
Some marginal gains strategies were beyond the capabilities of citizen cyclist to put into practice but others were easier to adopt. Cycling kits went from loose fitting two piece lycra jersey and shorts to one piece tailored sprint suits that were far more aerodynamic. Cycling helmet design evolved from a priority for ventilation to speed. Socks, shoe covers, width of handle bars, and even the bearings in the rear derailleur pulleys redesigned. These equipment updates were not required but some were almost free.
The question becomes, if we know something is faster, do we adopt it into our practice? As a professional cyclist, not evolving to capture ‘free watts’ is detrimental to long-term career opportunities. For the amateur, the selection of ‘free watts’ is personal preference.
What are known practices that would make our enterprises more effective but we choose not to adopt? Are these changes aligned with our values or do we value traditions over change? Are we comfortable with our results or are we seeking greater impact? Where does our Magnetic North (purpose, vision, mission, values) point when we consider new opportunities?
Measuring cups are essential resources for cooks, mixologists, and scientist. They are cornerstones of a kitchen, bar, and lab. Remarkable functionality and easy to use. Except when they are not.
Measuring cups have a lifespan. The uniform scale erodes from sight, they break, or get lost. Suddenly we are confronted with the reality that we must perform a skill that once was automatic.
The same is true with the individuals on our team. The highly reliable and omnipresent volunteer that filled a key position moves away. The Board Chair who served sensationally for years announces it is time for succession. A sustaining donor develops a new passion and shifts their considerable contributions towards a different enterprise.
We take for granted the utility of the reliable. How might it benefit our efforts if we think aloud, ‘I wonder what would happen if….?’ Perhaps the succession plan is obvious and the next individual is ready to ride. Or, we see challenging terrain ahead that we must navigate before reaching stability again. Celebrate the utility of the marvelously positioned individual but remember their tenure is not without limits. Be ready to adapt and adopt when needed.
Boarding a United flight from Chicago to Paris, Charles de Gaulle last Friday evening was a test of resolve. Passengers intently studied smart phones; United representatives repeatedly turned to the PA; overwhelmed travelers disembarked after boarding uncertain as news of the terrorist attacks ebbed and flowed. France was closing its borders; our flight would divert to Brussels if sunrise over the European continent denied us permission to land. My ninth grade daughter and I reviewed our options. There was no correct decision, just consequences to our choices. “How flexible do you want to be?” I inquired. She thought we should commit. Soon we were jetting into arctic air, away from the frenzy of real-time updates and towards the scene of tragedy. Committing to an uncertain future required preparation for disruption.
During our first night in Paris, we navigated the desolate streets to a classic vantage point on the River Seine. The Eiffel Tower stood devoid of the iconic illumination show; the searchlight beacon dimmed as if incapable of penetrating the tragedy. Closed museums, off-limit playgrounds, gated parks, fortified landmarks, bag and torso checks at the entrance to public buildings were omnipresent. A couple checking-in to the hotel and being informed of the numerous closures responded, “That is the right thing to do. Of course, everyone needs to be safe.” Few cafes and restaurants opened. Yet, the hashtag #portouvert trended on twitter offering the displaced housing, food, and safety. While fortification and security prevailed, the French citizens opened their doors to strangers.
Forever Changed by Hope
Our third night in Paris was marked by the illumination of monuments. A chance for a deep breath and a stroll. A partially opened Eiffel Tower permitted ascent to the second level and the vantage to take in the architecture of shadows as waves of rain washed across the city. Parks and museums accepted culturally starved visitors. The spirit of the city raised from catacomb to cafe. We departed forever changed by Paris. We had walked among sorrow and witnessed spirits bend in torrential circumstance, only to rebound with hope.
Base camps are a way great to support expeditions. If we wish to ascend an alpine peak we rarely need to haul all the equipment and supplies to the summit. Therefore, a well provisioned base camp is an ideal mechanism to serve a mountaineering team. At some point, the village in miniature is disassembled and moved to a new location for another adventure. However, base camps can become permanent when the team leaders do not trust that the rest of the expedition members will readily move on to another quest. A small group starts making longer journeys to climb peaks in other ranges and returns with magnificent stories to entertain the assembled crowd who remain at the original base camp. The base camp no longer serves the needs of those climbing and becomes a venue for entertaining the non-climbers.
The question for the team leader is to decide what is the purpose of base camp? Is it to support the expedition? Then it requires frequent relocation. If the purpose is to entertain those looking for good stories but who have no interest in climbing then the base camp stays but future expeditions suffer.
Many enterprises get into the debate between moving on to the next adventure at the risk losing members from their expedition. Changing locations serves as a quick mechanism to sort out those who are interested in climbing and building from those who are only seeking entertainment.
John Kotter outlines an eight-step hierarchy to create change and build a new culture. If we isolate the first three steps, it is often the starting ground for a strategic initiative. Developing a strategy if there is not a sense of urgency or critical people are missing from the team has less likelihood of maximizing its impact. Just because we think an opportunity or challenge is urgent does not automatically make it so for others. If we have a personal experience that illustrates the opportunity for change, we are much more likely to act.
Net Neutrality can be complicated. I was struggling to fully understand the ramifications of the currently proposed FCC legislation. I spent a couple minutes watching ViHart’s video and was persuaded to act. When complex ideas are presented in a meaningful way that are easy to use we empower those that are inspired to act. According to John Kotter if we wish to affect change, we need to create a sense of urgency, build a coalition, and present a compelling vision. If all of this can be embedded into a narrative that intersects with our own world view, we are liberated from a sense of fear and the unknown.