You’ve got to have a plan

Many years ago I was sat talking to a cardiologist who asked me what my plan was. When I asked what she meant she replied, “Do you want to drop dead one day on the commute because you don’t know what else to do? You’ve got to have a plan.” It became one of those conversations that change your life.

Over a decade later I’ve always worked to a clear plan, I know where I am and where I want to go, but I understand that the path that I need to take might change and fluctuate as I progress. Of course not every detail can or will be known, but the broad sense of direction is clear.

In moments of temporary unhappiness (I’m generally an upbeat guy) I’ve been surprised at how often it is caused by losing sight of the overall journey. Becoming too focused on the here and now and losing sight of the why.

So my question to you is the same as the question that was asked of me those years ago, “what’s your plan and if you don’t have one, what’s stopping you?”.

 

Why most management change fails

Let’s face it, change doesn’t fail or succeed, it just is. When we try to do something and it doesn’t work, that doesn’t mean that change hasn’t happened, it just means the outcomes that we want haven’t been achieved. We need to understand the difference.

If I decide I want to get fit I might buy a pair of running shoes and commit to go jogging every morning before work.  After three weeks when I’m demotivated, tired and laying in bed longer than ever before, a change has occurred, just not the one that I intended. In my head I’d imagined this svelte, athletic new me who absolutely loved this new habit. In reality I developed a belief I couldn’t run, confirmed I didn’t like early mornings and chafed in places I didn’t know existed. If someone was in the future to suggest a run, I’d make my excuses and leave.

What does this mean in an organisational context?

Most of our employees and colleagues have experienced this sensation at work, however, the motivation for the original decision hasn’t been theirs. They’ve been subjected to multiple suggestions over the years that they need to go for the equivalent of a run.  And similar to the runner they start to form beliefs, “it won’t work”, “I don’t like it” or even “what’s the point?”.

Sometimes the most important “changes” that we make are choices to do nothing, rather than to do something. If we litter our organisations with initiatives, if we try to do too much that adds little value we start to create the sort of psychological fatigue that leads to beliefs that ultimately are counter productive to the changes that actually need to achieve. Through our actions we can cause the reaction that we then dub, “resistance to change”.

Nobody is resistant to change, we all make changes every single day. We shop with Amazon, send messages on our phones, we use satellite navigation systems and find love by swiping left or right. We are constantly changing and evolving. Organisations become resistant to change because of the experiences that have happened in the past, because of the belief systems that have developed and because of our inability to keep things simple and clear.

 

What can you do?

There are lots of things I’d like to change, ranging from my personal appearance, to my team’s results, to the political situation in pretty much most countries in the Western world. I have views and opinions and desires that in certain circumstances I may express, but on the whole, I know are broadly ineffective  I can’t change my genetics or the abilities of the players in the team, I don’t have a direct line to the Prime Minister or President.

A lot of our working life is like this. In work, as in the rest of our lives, there are things that we might like to change, that we might not be absolutely happy with, our job role, our team, our leadership. I’d hazard a guess that the vast majority of complaints about working life fall into one of these categories – probably only adding in “the commute” and “the canteen”.

There is one school of thought that simply says, that’s your lot. You are a cog in a machine and you need to accept your place. Keep your head down, go through the motions, do what needs to be done (and no more) and get to the end. That’s a pretty compelling strategy if you believe in an afterlife, for those that don’t it feels…somewhat  pointless.

On the other end of the spectrum you’ll have the tree- hugging, granola eating brigade who will tell you to find purpose in even the most meaningless task, that joy and eternal peace await you if you could only change your way of thinking. My experience is that these people generally work from home in their pyjamas, have jobs that no-one would notice if they didn’t exist and last did a meaningful act when they evacuated their bowels in the morning.

So let me give you another view. I might not be able to change my appearance, but I can do the best I can with it. I can dress well, go to the gym, look after what I eat and take feedback on what looks good and doesn’t. I can’t make my team better,  but I can go along to the match and cheer from the first to the final whistle, doing everything I can to provide another positive voice. I can’t phone the prime minister, but I can get involved, I can vote or join a political party, I can campaign or stand as a representative.

I can’t do the whole, but I can do my part.

Life is about choice, but it is also about the acceptance of those aspects in our world that are uncontrollable. We might not be able to impact a new system being implemented, a new work routine, a change of CEO or a reorganisation. But we can absolutely choose how we interact with them, what we bring to them and how we want to be. If choice is about freedom, then this understanding is about peace. Being at peace with the things that we can and can’t influence and putting our energy where it counts the most.

To choose is to be free

“But I don’t have a choice”

If I had a pound for every time I’ve heard this through my career, I’d be able to buy you all a round of drinks. It is a curious phrase and worth another look,

I don’t have a choice.

As I sit here writing this I”m struggling to think of situations where this is entirely true – hitting the ground when you’ve fallen off a building, growing old, chewing on a fruit pastille. The examples are few and far between.

In most cases people are either saying, “I can’t see the choices that I have” or, “I don’t like the repercussions of the choice that I have”. The implications of either stance is one of impotence. Simply put, when we refuse to see or accept the choices that we have, we deny the very essence of being. And in doing so, we diminish ourselves.

The nub of this human dilemma is often played out in a scenario where a house is on fire and you have the ability to save one of two much loved people. Who would you choose? Who would you save? Of course any choice in these circumstances is unpalatable, but as grotesque as it is, it is undeniably there.

Closer to home we can see it manifest in our organisations, where colleagues, employees and bosses will talk in tricky situations about, “not having a choice”. This is rarely, if ever, true. Or colleagues and friends who become stuck, lost in a self induced mental fug that leaves them static and inert.

In most circumstances where I see people unhappy, demotivated, depressed or disengaged, the root cause is their inability, or unwillingness to engage with the choices in front of them. This is overwhelmingly more common than people who are feeling the same way because of a decision or choice they have made.

As one of my favourite philosophers put it, “freedom is what you do with what’s been done you”. Given it is a Monday morning as we slide towards autumn, I’ll frame it a little more positively; happiness isn’t about the choices that you make in life, but the ability to see those choices exist.