Inside change, there is a constant pull between the utopian vision that drives the change forward and the complicated, messy, reality that is day-to-day living. The tension is necessary for change: to be always striving for the ideal while maintaining an awareness and acceptance that reality is not quite so easy. Change efforts need their compelling vision with the slightly (or more than slightly) utopian views, because seeking these ideals rallies everyone around a cause.
The Pull – Vision
It’s the utopian vision that everyone wants. They don’t want to have to struggle with people or parts that just don’t seem to fit. It’s easier to believe that if we just change one thing about the organization (or everything), we’ll find an approach where there are no more problems and no more threats for survival.
Explicitly or implicitly, the need to cast a vision is a part of every change initiative. After all, if you don’t know where you’re going, how can you possibly hope to get there?
Importantly, you cannot know all the problems that the new vision will bring with it. Some things you must experience to know, and you can’t experience them until you’ve created the new reality. At some level, this means that the vision will always have a slightly utopian feel, devoid of the natural challenges that happen.
The Push – Today’s Reality
Paradoxically, we often sell the idea of change against the problems and threats that we see in our current situation. We take the known limitations, challenges, and threats to design the new utopian vision without realizing that these are the problems that came from the last change initiative. If we’ve lived with the current state for any length of time, we’re probably amassed a long list of frustrations and challenges. If we’ve looked at the larger trends, we’re probably aware of the limitations to our current situation.
So, while we’re selling towards the vision, we’re selling away from the current state’s problems and weaknesses.
The gap between the vision that pulls the change forward and the problems of the current state that push the change forward is the awareness that the vision isn’t complete, and there’s the possibility that the outcomes will be worse than pursuing the current course. People who have been through many changes often get change fatigue – or cynical – because they see oscillations, where old structures are returned to when the new structures don’t work out as planned. And so it goes, back and forth, trying to eliminate the problems that are inherent to organizations.
The key to engaging people is to recognize that their concerns that things may be worse are real and work with them on how to avoid these possibilities. Instead of explaining how the vision doesn’t have those kinds of problems, consider how the concerns they have could be real – particularly if the approach has been tried before.
In the end, there is no utopia. There are only places which have fewer – or better – problems and those that don’t. Our goal with any change shouldn’t be to find utopia but to cast a utopian vision and accept the problems and limitations that come when we make that new utopian vision our current reality.