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Tools for Change

Virginia Satir said, "The only real certainty in life is change."

Our colleagues and fellows from Better Change say, 'By changing nothing, nothing changes.'


And change is hard. Sometimes, it is thrust upon us, and we must deal with it, like the COVID-19 pandemic. Occasionally, we desire a different outcome, but changing the status quo is difficult. We wonder what we might lose.


Virginia describes a model for change in 5 phases.


The adage goes, "All models are wrong, and some are useful. This model is useful for many reasons. Firstly, it is uncomplicated and passes the napkin test. Secondly, it is nuanced, layered, and fractal, and every time I hear someone else speak about the model, I learn something new and a new way to apply the model or a new context. This model can be applied personally, but if you observe an organisational system going through change, you can often see the stages that the system is going through.


Virginia spoke of the model in 5 stages:


Stage 1, we have a status quo - We can predict things. We can't predict everything, but familiarity and predictability give us comfort. We know how we operate in this space, our challenges and capabilities, and how to deal with them. We probably feel safe and grounded here and often operate with assumptions we can rely on.


The status quo will remain the same unless there is some impetus to do things differently, permission to go into the unknown, or sometimes an external factor that comes as a surprise.


Stage 2 is the introduction of a foreign element. The foreign element can be a personal desire for something different, an external factor, or a combination of the 2. The foreign element pushes the system into stage 3, which Virginia calls chaos.


The way we experience this version of chaos has many factors. The old order doesn't function anymore, and we haven't yet figured out or acclimated to a new status quo. Here, we are in a place of uncertainty, ambiguity, and the unknown. So many things happen to us here; sometimes, we are unsure about how to behave or be, sometimes we are angry and frustrated because things don't make sense, and sometimes we are scared and anxious because we don't know where to go or what to do.


At the same time, this can be a space of new beginnings, opportunities, and possibilities. From an organisational perspective, I often see frustration, confusion, and what feels like disorganisation. People aren't sure what to do; sometimes, there is a lack of clarity on roles and responsibilities and who is supposed to be doing what, when and how.


We might feel like we are in limbo, have fears of catastrophic outcomes, or be thinking of new possibilities. From this point of chaos, we move slowly into stage 4, the practice and integration phase. Here, we are at the foothills of new possibilities. As we experiment with new things, ideas, and ways of being, we learn what works and what doesn't. We test things, create new rituals or behaviours and integrate these into stage 5, a new status quo.


Body feelings accompany these stages, often anxiety and discomfort; for some, the price of change is higher than for others. We have security and familiarity in stage 1 and again in stage 5, but the cost can be expensive. Sometimes, that familiarity can hold a pattern or system in place. People are more afraid of the change than the discomfort of the current status quo.


The first time we go through this and come out on the other side, we learn about change at a meta-level and our ability to change. As we become familiar with the cycle and begin to understand it, we can look for ways to help ourselves during the phases of chaos and practice and become more resilient.


This change process is also the process of growth; as we change, we grow, but growth can be a tree or cancer, so paying attention to what we are integrating is essential. Virginia had a great quote around this.


"Anything that changes anything has the power of dynamite - we have an opportunity and a responsibility to direct that dynamite."


How has this model helped the organisations we work with and us?

What does this mean for humans, and how might it relate to organisational change and uncertainty? If we only make changes infrequently to ourselves, our thinking, and our processes, then the price for change and the anxiety around it is high. Suppose we allow ourselves to be disrupted by foreign elements on purpose more frequently and understand the change process universally and how it applies to our specific change. Then, we can integrate those changes much faster and become increasingly resilient.


We found that having words for what we are going through helps us process better intellectually, which supports us emotionally. It also allows us to know that chaos isn't a forever state but a transitional state and that there are resources that we can connect with and use to support the humans and the system to get through the changes and be intentional about the new status quo.


If we use the model effectively, we can predict what a system might go through and have support ready to give scaffolding to that chaos and seed some transforming ideas or practices so that the system moves into integration a little faster.

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