Recently I was blessed to have the opportunity to travel abroad to recharge and refresh. During this trip I had an opportunity to snorkel over a barrier reef for the very first time. On the day that we went, the ocean was very choppy and the guide asked our group if we preferred to stay in shallow, calm waters or deeper, rough waters. The caveat of all this was that we were likely to see more wildlife in the rougher waters. Ultimately our group opted for the deep sea experience.
Riding out on the ocean with the boat bouncing and sea water spraying, I admit that I became a little nervous about our recent group decision. Soon enough we were at our starting point and I found myself taking a deep breath and jumping in to the deep blue sea. The cool water felt invigorating, but as I rose to the surface the rough waters distracted me and I could feel myself starting to panic. My mind flashed to the snorkel techniques my husband and I practiced prior to our trip and realizing that I was getting nowhere other than more panicked by trying to stay above water, I took a deep breath and dove under.
Beneath the rough waters was a colorful world of fish, coral and other sea life. As I let my body ride the choppy surface and my breathing finally returned to its normal pace, I was in awe of all that I was able to see. I found myself gesturing emphatically to my husband all the wonderful things I hoped we would remember later. Our guide zipped just ahead of us, pointing to other creatures and leading us over the world’s second largest barrier reef.
In my life I have willingly taken on many personal and professional challenges, all of which I have never regretted. For someone who has been quite accustomed to change, even this brief experience, out of my element, was for a moment terrifying. So what has this experience reminded me about change? What can leaders bring to a community that is going through a change process?
Recognize that people need to know why change is important and help them to make sense of it
One of my favorite TED talks is Simon Sinek’s How Great Leaders Inspire Action. The premise of his talk is about articulating the why before the how or what. When we embark on change in our communities, individuals need to know why the change is important and more importantly, the reason should be one that resonates with the community. At times in education, we can be too focused on the change process itself and we must slow down to involve those impacted by the change. In our ocean adventure, our guide clearly explained our options for the day and ultimately let our group’s feedback shape the outcome.
If you are the leader of the organization, jump in with your team.
Change is never easy and it takes courageous leaders at all levels of a community to inspire others to be a part of the journey. I suspect if our guide had not jumped in to the rougher waters first, he may not have had many volunteers to jump in. Once he did, a few others were quick to follow and within minutes the whole group was in the water. For added support, there were staff that remained in our boat, not very far away from where we were snorkeling at all times. So leaders, invite others willing to take the first steps with you and also look for others who will be able to support the initial risk takers and ultimately the group, along the way. Failures and mistakes are an inevitable part of the process and with the right team can turn these situations into learning opportunities.
Take a look beneath the surface and explore, don’t be too focused on outcomes right away.
Of course when we embark on any change, there is an ultimate goal we hope to achieve. I support the use of goal setting and success criteria as they are essential to any endeavour. It is also important that individuals in a community have time to acclimate and dive beneath the rough waters under their own terms. I needed that moment when I first dove in to the water be slightly panicked, to catch my breath, and dive in when I was ready. When I saw what was beneath and how surprisingly more calm it was underwater, than above, you couldn’t get me out of the water.
The point is people need time to explore and adjust when change is in progress. If you stay solely task oriented and rush too soon to the next task, you miss opportunities for individuals to see the beauty in the change and embrace it. More importantly, they will not have a chance to engage in their own explorations that could bring great value to the team’s overall process and goals.
Let the group explore, but also remind them of the focus.
Our guides were great about letting us explore, but also did not let us wander way beyond our limits. Our guide in the water wore bright swim shorts so we could easily identify him from afar and he would take the time to show us the beautiful wildlife that he thought would make the most of our experience. Change is messy and while it is important to let individuals find their own way (see above) and work through this process, it will be necessary to bring individuals together and remind them of what is most important.
Change has never been easy and never will be, but with these few reminders from my recent vacation experience, I hope to make future change processes I am involved in meaningful to my community.
What other analogies could you add about change? What opportunities should leaders take to make the change process a more meaningful one?