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Nothing ever changes everything

Our imaginations are, almost by definition, bigger than our reality. When we envision the future, it's almost always bolder, brighter and better than today. It's what gives us the hope we need to fuel our actions. Just as a lever amplifies our strength, as glasses extend our sight, and as wheels propel our mobility, imagination expands our vision of what might be.


Which is a wonderful ability until it works against us.


Movie makers, especially those who make horror movies, know this. In the scariest of horror movies they don't reveal the monster until late in the movie. CGI (Computer Generated Imagery) is powerful, but that power pales to that of shadow puppetry when compared to the imagination of the audience.


Writers are masters at the art of exploiting our imaginations to create the environment for their tales. H.P.Lovecroft's "The Tomb" instills a deep sense of dread long before the tomb is even opened. No CGI required, just the power of imagination.


To a child in the dark, the scritch scratch screeee against the window pane, isn't an apple tree branch moving in the wind - it's the persistent clawing of the swamp monster seeking a warm juicy dinner.


Our imagination works for us when we are contemplating how OUR plans for the future will bear fruit. Not all future plans mind you, just the ones we convince ourselves are worth executing.


There is an unforgiving filtering process at work. Many of our plans are still born - they don't reach the level of confidence necessary to move forward - so there is a self-fulfilling prophecy process at work. In short? We don't embrace plans that we believe have little chance of success. Plans that aren't supported by our imagination. Plans we don't have hope will succeed.


On the other hand, the ones we do latch onto are bolstered by our imagination. We go from imagining what will go wrong, to imagining what will go right. There's not much middle ground. Imagination is a double edged sword. And when it comes to organizational 'change'... Our imaginations are often the biggest obstacle to embracing change.


That's how it gets interesting.


Here are two separate observations from the previous discussion.

  1. When we have confidence in a plan/change our imagination envisions the best outcomes.
  2. When we don't have confidence in a plan/change our imagination envisions the worst possible outcomes.

Which means that those who have decided a change is necessary, are always imagining the best of all possible worlds as the outcome. When they attempt to convince others to "buy-into" their vision, they tend to focus on only the benefits. They downplay, if not outright ignore, the possibility of failure.


Meanwhile, those they are trying to convince are still evaluating the proposed change. Their imaginations have them (correctly) focused on the risks, the very real possibility of failure - they are not yet ready for the promise of success. They consider those unwilling to discuss risks as naive, foolhardy and reckless.


That gap of vision between the enthusiastic and the unconvinced is frustrating. It can thwart the best, most necessary of changes. The person wanting to move forward sees only the opportunity; the person holding back sees only the threat. It's almost useless to sell the promise of the future to someone who must first overcome their perception of threat.


A good change manager needs reliable techniques to narrow the gap. Here are three approaches.


1 - Put a leash on their imagination. 


When we first contemplate a change, when we don't have all the details on what is being proposed. Our imagination immediately assumes that EVERYTHING is going to change. When we believe that everything is going to change, then we believe that possibility of failure lies around every corner, and in every nook and cranny. Success, from their perspective, is very unlikely.


So... The change manager needs to specifically identify what won't change. What will remain the same. Which skills will still be available in the new situation.


For example: when announcing a corporate reorganisation? Be sure to point out the things that they can count on as fixed where applicable... They will still report to person X; they will still work Z hours a week; still receive the same benefits; still work in the same office; still work for the same person. Each example of 'This will remain the same' serves as another shackle on their imagination.


This trims back the amount of Change that their imagination must work with. It offers them fewer fears to contend with; fewer worries... And more certainty.


A poorly skilled movie maker shows the monster way too soon. A good Change agent describes the change in great detail, in part by making it clear that the change is tiny, it won't affect everything; it won't affect A, or B and C and even D. A good Change manager shines a light on the window pane exposing the swamp monster as an apple branch.


2 - Deal with their remaining fears, worries and concerns directly. 


Done properly, the suggestion above hopefully makes the change more manageable. If we can address the remaining uncertainties, then and only, can their vision of the future align with ours.


There's a mistake that experts make. They assume others either see the world as they do, or that everyone takes the word of the expert as truth.


If I, as an IT expert, inform you that we're installing a new payroll system on Monday, then I should expect you to be concerned about being paid on time. When I tell you, "Don't worry, everything will be fine!" I do nothing to alleviate your concern. I'm selling you my positive view and NOT addressing your negative, realistic, normal and natural perspective. I should tell you, that I hear your concern, and have taken precautions to ensure you will get paid, even if we must immediately hand write you a cheque.


3 - Recognise and accept that the need for Change is never totally obvious to everyone.


Accept that all Change demands that we must destroy a Status Quo that took pains to establish. Accept the reality, that people don't shift direction without a good reason to do.

Accept that people will resist a Change they don't believe in.


Accept that if we're attempting to bring about a Change then we're responsible for communicating the need to Change.


In simple terms? Accept that water is wet - and that denying this is pointless.

Implementing Change requires that we set the stage for a vision that people want to move towards - to accomplish that we need to engage their minds, their imagination, as the engine to move us forward.


While this might all seem obvious, the constant struggles we experience while trying to get people to 'buy into a Change', are proof that we are far too quick to sell the benefits, and seldom take time to first properly frame the Change, then manage the legitimate, and more to the point - predicable concerns - before singing the praises of the promised land.



Peter de Jager is a writer and professional speaker - you can view his work at: and contact him at [email protected]





While trying to get people to buy into a Change, we are far too quick to sell the benefit