Chapter 1 - Current Change Research and Theory

Feb 28, 2019chevron-down
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Chapter 1 - Current Change Research and Theory

70-90% of all change initiatives FAIL. Both personal AND organizational. Personal is 70%+ failure. Organizational is 80%+ failure.

With all the research and discussion around change and change management – why are we so abysmal at it?

Why does it seem like we are doing MORE change initiatives and going nowhere?

I hypothesize that part of the challenge is that we are struggling with change in our personal lives.

Struggles at the personal scale translate to struggles at the organizational scale.

All the talk about “change” and “getting good at change” and “being agile” falls flat if we can’t do it for ourselves. If we don’t know what successful, directed change looks like on a personal level.

In my experience, success at change at the personal level makes it easier to translate that success at the group level. Struggles at the personal level show up at the group level.

At the heart of all of change – personal and group – is the change journey.


The Change Journey

The change journey is, fundamentally, a journey of loss and rebirth.

Within this journey, there is a grief process.

David Kessler adapted Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s stages of dying when he saw similarities between the stages of dying and the stages of the loved ones of the dying.

  • Denial and Shock – We are going through the motions, struggling just to get through the day. There is a self-protective numbness as we process the loss.

  • Anger – The uncomfortable feeling that provides a (hopefully) temporary structure for processing the loss.

  • Bargaining – A desire to return to “the way things were” and negotiating how we can “keep things the same.”

  • Depression – We start to feel the emptiness of the loss. Our attention moves squarely into the present.

  • Acceptance – We learn to live with the new reality and begin to take on new roles and re-adjust our activities and relationships to align with this new reality.

Kessler notes that the stages of grief “… are responses to loss that many people have, but there is not a typical response to loss as there is no typical loss.” These stages can happen in mere moments, fluctuate between stages, and does not happen in a linear fashion.


It’s a framework for understanding the messy emotions we encounter as we navigate loss and transition.

Even when change is positive, we still go through variations of this process.


In 1999, John Fisher came up with what he calls the Personal Transition Curve or, in common parlance, the Fisher Change Curve. This change curve is a framework for navigating change that accommodates Kubler-Ross and Kessler’s stages of grief while recognizing that there are positive and negative outcomes as people move through the change process.

The curve contains 12 stages. The following 8 stages occur as you successfully navigate the transition. Often, this journey is subconscious.

Fisher identifies where we can be derailed from the change process. These derailments occur on the downward slope.

In a later refinement of the model, Fisher recognized that there is often anger associated with moving through the transition curve.

In the earlier stages we often aim this anger at others – especially when it seems like the change is being inflicted on us and we have limited control over the process. Later stages, the anger turns inward. “We become angry at ourselves for not knowing better and/or allowing the situation to escalate outside our control.”

Though this anger is not always present, it’s common enough that we ignore this emotion at our own peril. It is this anger, either externally or internally focused, that drives us through the guilt and depression stages of the change curve.


To successfully navigate this change journey, it helps to recognize these stages and accept them as part of the process with the understanding that we can’t get stuck there – particularly on the downward slope.

The change curve tests us.

How badly do we want the change?

Does this change map to our values?

Is our “Why” strong enough?

Are we clear on what we are trying to accomplish?

Can we make our next steps visible, measure our progress, and create short-term wins to help us through this process?

Have we built in time to consolidate any improvements and allow for integration and reflection?

Some of these questions are based on John Kotter’s Change Model. Kotter’s Model is better suited for the organizational change context.

The ability to answer these questions will help us navigate the anger, doubt, and uncertainty that are a part of the change journey successfully.


The 3 Ways to Make Behavior Change Stick

BJ Fogg, in 20 years of research at Stanford University, noted that there are only 3 ways behavior change sticks:

Option A. Have an epiphany
Option B. Change your environment (what surrounds you)
Option C. Take baby steps

As Dr. Fogg notes, creating an epiphany is difficult. You should rule out Option A unless you have mystical powers (I don’t).


If you do manage to have an epiphany – kudos! You have a strong tool at your disposal. (We’ll talk about how to leverage that epiphany in Chapter 2)

I am assuming none of us have mystical powers for the purposes of this book.

Let’s talk about the other two options.


Option B: Create a Supportive Environment

There is a long history of despots rounding up and killing off academics, teachers, thought leaders, and other public and vocal opposition to their rule. Think – China’s Cultural Revolution.


Even at a more local level – many organizational cultures are quick to chastise and cast out ‘free thinkers.” Think about where you observe this dynamic in your own life.

We underestimate the importance of belonging at our own risk. Consider that Belonging is the 3rd tier in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. That belonging is founded on a need for safety (2nd tier) and, especially when we are younger, for sustenance (base tier).

There is a biological basis around our need to fit into our environment.

Matthew Lieberman and Naomi Eisenberger at the University of California found that the brain uses the same circuits for social pain and pleasure as it does to process physical pain and pleasure. We are wired to feel pain when we are bereft of social connection and belonging in the same way we feel pain when we physically hurt ourselves.


“The needs for safety, belonging, love relations and for respect can be satisfied only by other people, i.e., only from outside the person. This means considerable dependence on the environment. A person in this dependent position cannot really be said to be governing himself, or in control of his own fate. He must be beholden to the sources of supply of needed gratifications. Their wishes, their whims, their rules and laws govern him and must be appeased lest he jeopardize his sources of supply. He must be, to an extent, “other-directed,” and must be sensitive to other people’s approval, affection and good will. This is the same as saying that he must adapt and adjust by being flexible and responsive and by changing himself to fit the external situation. He is the dependent variable; the environment is the fixed, independent variable.” – Abraham Maslow, Towards a Psychology of Being



The Plains Indian buffalo hunts provide an excellent example of the importance of belonging for safety and sustenance.

The Plains Indians, and other groups that relied on the Buffalo for resources, hunted in groups. Often recruiting the entire tribe for the harvest.

A common technique used by the Plains Indians was the Buffalo Jump.

In this technique, hunters guided the buffalo towards a tall cliff and forced them to jump to their death on the rocks below. Other tribe members would then clean up and process the remains.

The typical scope of the Buffalo Jump – to get at least enough buffalo so that they could feed the tribe and provide raw materials for clothing, lodging, and other purposes.


The “why” – to not starve.

The people who participated in these hunts stayed focus on the task at hand. I don’t see much evidence that they were distracted during the hunt … picking medicinal herbs or hunting prairie dogs. It was understood that the project was challenging enough that it would require everyone’s focus and the “why” was something everyone involved could get behind.

Every individual had a role. Each role played an important part in the success of the hunt.

Each of these roles and when the role would be performed was clearly defined. Each person involved in the hunt needed to play his or her assigned role to the best of their ability for the hunt to be successful.

If one person in the tribe does not play his or her role correctly, decides to make up a new role, or questions the reason for the hunt in the first place – there’s not going to be much acceptance from the community. The individual risks getting cast out and fending for oneself.

In the harsh terrain of the Dakota Badlands, being cast out is, potentially, a death sentence.

It is that need for belonging and safety that derails most change efforts- especially when we are trying to make change in an environment that does not support that change.

Most cultures do not have a container to hold an individual’s growth past the level of that culture.

Finding opportunities to grow requires personal searching, perseverance, and taking sole responsibility.

It’s not in anyone’s best interest for you to grow and change.

It’s not in the culture’s best interest for you to become ‘post-conventional’

Your growth makes you less “predictable.”


The Environment is the Container for Change

Finding a container that supports our growth makes this task easier and more likely to succeed.

A tribe of fellow travelers and mentors along with the systems and resources to nurture this change.

Technology provides more awareness of these options and opportunities for connection with like-minded others.

Our economy encourages us to develop different skills over the course of our working lives.

We are more mobile – no longer limited to our immediate family and local environment.

We can change environments quickly, surround ourselves with different people as we need to grow both in-person and remotely. We are aware of more options, even if we do not choose to take advantage of them.

We are blessed with an overwhelming amount of choice.


“You are the average of the 5 people you spend the most time with.” – Jim Rohn

More interestingly, we are influences, even indirectly, by friends of friends.

In 2007, Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler, using the data from the Framingham Heart Study

13, saw a pattern around how family and friends impacted obesity. They learned that if a friend of yours becomes obese, you are 45% more likely to gain weight. More interestingly, if a friend of a friend of yours becomes obese, your likelihood of gaining weight increases 20% - even if you don’t know this person. One more level out, the friend of a friend of a friend – and your likelihood increases 10%.

Christakis and Fowler did follow-up studies. They found similar results with smoking rates and happiness. It wasn’t just your friends that influence you – your entire NETWORK impacts your life.


Significant research occurring around the number of steps / people it takes to connect an individual to a random stranger (Six Degrees of Separation) is still in progress. Much of the research is concluding that there aren’t that many steps between people. The fact that someone 3 degrees out can influence whether you are obese, or smoke, or feel happy is cause for pause.

As David Burkus concludes in his Medium article summarizing Christakis and Fowler’s research, “You’re not the average of the FIVE people you surround with…You’re the average of all the people who surround you. So take a look around and make sure you’re in the right surroundings.”


It’s easier to ‘be your best self’ in environments that encourage it.

Over the past 5 years – I’ve noticed an increasing number of discussions around how we can create deliberately developmental environments.

With this wealth of choice and access, it is our responsibility to find environments and tribes that support our growth.


Finding Supportive Containers

Robert Kegan and Lisa Lachey, in their book An Everyone Culture: Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization, provide a model for a supportive container.

This container has 3 overlapping components.

Graphic from Kegan/Lachey – An Everyone Culture, Becoming a Deliberately Developmental Organization, pg 85 (I will replace picture with something more appropriate to the individual model - in progress)

Within that container, do you find people who care about who you are, what you are interested, and what you can become.

(Carol Dweck, Mindset, 192)

Do people encourage you to share what you’ve learned? Are you expected to vulnerably share your mistakes and the lessons gleaned from them?

(Kegan and Lachey, Everyone Culture, pg 92)


You want to be clear on your vision, find people who are willing and capable of supporting your growth, and put yourself in an environment that guides you towards that growth (rather than working against you.)

Putting yourself in a nurturing environment leverages our need for safety and belonging. It gives us a better chance of success than going it alone or trying to be rebellious for the sake of being rebellious.

It’s why Crossfit gyms, with their emphasis on community, are still popular and are so effective.

(I was a member of Potomac Crossfit for 2.5 years in the 2000s and deeply enjoyed the experience. For me, it was an effective environment for body composition change and establishing a 10+ year old fitness habit. I tracked this experience on a separate blog.


Some of us don’t have easy access to change our environments or have no current desire to change one’s friends.

We want to figure out who our supporters truly are and who will be working against our change – either overtly or covertly.

The more important this change is to you, the more critical good stakeholder evaluation is.

In my own experience, major change often derails because my sense of belonging (and, often, my sense of safety because I feel I don’t belong) is threatened.

Major personal change has a ripple effect.

What we want to do is shift who we spend most of our time with to our “most supportive 5.”

We may need to resort to books, YouTube, and virtual communities.

Many of us have both in-person and virtual communities we participate in. Virtual communities also provide us access to a supportive network that we might not have in-person.

We might also have health issues that prevent us from physical outreach.

The debate around whether virtual communities are (or can ever be) as robust as in-person communities continues.

I have personally found it helpful to use both virtual AND in-person contact to developing a support network.

The virtual world provides me with information and resources that I may not have readily available in my immediate environment. It also allows me to do preliminary research on a change I wish to make before taking up someone else’s time.

In one circumstance, in early sobriety, it was the virtual network that ultimately encouraged me to go find an in-person community.

The in-person community provides tangible role models and an exchange of energy that still cannot be replicated by virtual communications, despite the dramatic improvements in video-teleconferencing technology over the past 10 years.

Ideally – your most supportive 5 contains at least a couple people in your current physical network.

Who, in your immediate surroundings, do you see as a potential ally?

What support do you need from them?

On the flip side, who do you need to spend LESS time with?

What agreements need to be renegotiated to reduce the time and energy spent on these individuals?

This is hardest when loved ones prove to be your biggest obstacles.

Be prepared to learn a lot about your relationships.

Compromises may be available. Or not. What is your best alternative to “no?” How can you satisfy your interests even if you cannot reach agreement with the other side?

There is one commitment we must make to ourselves if we are going to make the personal changes we wish to see in our lives – We need to commit that we are responsible for our own lives. That no matter what others do, we are responsible for meeting our true needs. We need to decide how we are going to act, even if we are not in supportive environments, not getting the help we expect, or receiving a constant barrage of criticism from “well-meaning” loved ones.

For many of us, this is a challenging shift. Many of us grew up in environments that encouraged us to allow others to control our well-being. It’s a developmental stage experienced by individuals and cultures.

Do you want to be stuck there?

Are you willing to grow?


Evaluating Your Environment

Pretend you are a cactus. Specifically, a Prickly Pear Cactus (Opuntia).

Prickly Pear Cactus thrive best in environments that are warm, sunny, dry, has alkaline to neutral soil, and drain incredibly well.

Some Prickly Pear can do ok in cold weather, though they are not thrilled about it (Eastern prickly pear (O. humifusa) )

All Prickly Pear Cactii require what gardeners call “dry feet.” If their roots become waterlogged, they rot and die.

Other than waterlogged roots, Prickly Pear Cactii are hearty sorts.


If you are a Prickly Pear Cactus, you will not do well in the swamps of the Florida Everglades.

Furthermore, the chances of you changing the Florida Everglades into the Sonoran Desert are obscenely slim. You would need a lot of time, an inconceivable amount of resources, and an ecological disaster for this to happen.

The best action is to ensure you are in an environment that you can at least survive in.

Once your fundamental needs are met, only then consider optimization.

If your environment is asking you, as a Prickly Pear Cactus, to become a Venus Flytrap (Dionaea muscipula) – consider going elsewhere.

Unlike plants, you can move elsewhere.


Happiness and Flow States

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the former chairman of the psychology department at the University of Chicago, investigated a question that has plagued people since before Aristotle.

When do people feel most happy?

After decades of research, Csikszentmihalyi concluded that happiness is not

Instead, happiness is a condition that must be prepared for, cultivated, and defended privately by each person.

The best we can do is to learn to control our inner experience.

This conclusion is not new, and Cziksentmihalyi will admit as much.

What Cziksentmihalyi provides, however, is a framework that might help us order our lives in such a way that allows us to create what he calls a “flow state” more frequently.

First, let’s define what a flow state is. Cziksentmihalyi identifies 4 characteristics:

  1. We sense time transforming. You get so focused on your task that when you look up, thinking it is only 30 minutes later, you find that you have been at it 5 hours.

  2. The experience is intrinsically rewarding. We are performing the activity for its own sake and enjoying the process. We are not so focused on rewards, results, and outcomes.

  3. The activity feels easy and effortless. Interestingly – the activity is no SO easy and effortless that we find it repetitive and boring.

  4. We lose self-consciousness because we are so focused on the task at hand.

Essentially, in flow state, we are falling in love with the process.

We are more likely to fall in love with the process when there is an element of challenge and we are able to set up our environment so that we can focus on what we are doing and see progress.


In Csikszentmihalyi’s research, he identified four structural factors that increase the probability of experiencing the flow state during the execution of a well-loved activity:

1) The environment allows you to completely concentrate on a task

2) You can set up your activity such that you have clear goals and can receive immediate feedback

3) You feel like you have control over your activity

4) And the activity fits in a sweet spot that is challenging enough where you need to focus, but not so challenging that you get frustrated and stressed.

Since 1990, when Csikszentmihalyi published Flow, his findings around the structural factors required to achieve flow state have been confirmed by other researchers.

Unfortunately, setting up your environment such that you can completely concentrate on your task has become more difficult.

Have you ever found yourself “in the zone” at work, then get interrupted by a co-worker or a phone call or an instant message? You just had your flow state interrupted.

With the rise in popularity of open-plan workspaces many find it difficult to concentrate at all. Beyond the commentary that has appeared in the business literature, researchers are looking at the true impact of open plans on productivity. The findings aren’t good. Two recent studies are confirming what many of us sense about the impact of open plan offices and cubicles on our productivity and well-being.

In a 2015 study out of the Dublin Institute of Technology, John Walsh and his colleagues found that only 18 percent of individuals surveyed felt that their open plan workspace positively or very positively influenced their concentration.


Furthermore, the growth of open plan offices, and that constant feeling (and reality) of “being watched” has a negative impact on our creativity and in our experience of flow. A 2018 study performed by Ethan Bernstein at Harvard Business School suggests that we wind up being better at rote tasks because part of our brain is being spent managing how other people perceive us. “Do I look busy?” becomes more important than the work you are doing. This completely negates one of our key components of Flow – which is the loss of self-consciousness.


We are also faced with an increase in interruptions from other sources and more demanding external expectations around our response times. The adoption of tools such as instant messaging and Slack on top of phone and email - along with the increased expectations around response time, both real and perceived, that surround these technologies - it is more difficult to work without interruption. There is a growing expectation for close to instantaneous response, no matter which channel is being used for the request.

Business consultants and enterprise vendors are performing the bulk of the research around this topic. Jeff Toister, an independent customer service consultant, performed an interesting survey of 1200 of his customers in 2018. Overall, he found that a standard response time of under 60 minutes, across all channels, will satisfy 80% of customers. Among co-workers, he found that expectations for response are LESS reasonable – with over 41% expecting a response time under 60 minutes and almost 80% requiring a response within 4 hours. These response times include evenings, weekends and holidays.


These constant interruptions and demands, along with the expectation that you will provide a mindful response almost instantaneously, challenges our ability to find flow and think creatively.

Each time we are interrupted, we struggle to regain that state of flow. The American Psychological Association, in their survey of the research on task switching, noted that even though switching costs may be relatively small, sometimes just a few tenths of a second per switch, they can add up to large amounts when people switch repeatedly back and forth between tasks.

33 Brief mental blocks created by shifting between tasks can cost as much as 40 percent of someone's productive time.

Furthermore, multitaskers do those tasks poorly. “Multitaskers were just lousy at everything,” said Clifford I. Nass, a professor of communication at Stanford and one of the investigators in the 2009 Stanford University research study. “It was a complete and total shock to me.”


We may not have much control over the environments we find ourselves in. We may be unfortunate enough to find ourselves in places where concentration is challenging with few options. However, we can structure our tasks. The other 3 structural factors - establishing clear goals and creating immediate feedback mechanisms, gaining control over what we do, and balancing the challenge of the task with our current skill capability – are within our sphere of influence.


Recommendations for Changing Your Environment


Option C: Take Baby Steps

Taking baby steps provide multiple advantages when executing change:


Goal setting, certainty, and performance

Let’s start with establishing clear goals and immediate feedback. Clear goals allow you to see a path to mastery and provides a level of certainty that the brain appreciates.

The brain craves certainty. When we successfully achieve a level of certainty and control over our environment, our brain gets a dopamine hit. As David Rock, in an article in Psychology Today points out, people pay a LOT of money for certainty to everyone from expensive business consultancies to tarot readers and astrologers.


Goal setting, even of small, habit goals, helps to create the feeling of certainty and control. Goals provide certainty around what to focus on, feedback on how you are doing in relationship to that goal, and a perception of control of the level of effort and activities required to achieve those goals.

Gary Latham, Professor of Organizational Behaviour at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, has found over two decades of research that goal-setting improves performance. His research has been validated by multiple researchers over the years, including T.R. Mitchell at the University of Washington and Colin Roth in Europe.


Furthermore, if goals seem ambiguous, performance drops precipitously. Daniel Ellsberg, in his 1961 dissertation on decision theory, noted that people will always choose a known probability of winning over an unknown probability of winning even if the known probability is low and the unknown probability could be a guarantee of winning.

People "prefer the devil they know" rather than assuming a risk where odds are difficult or impossible to calculate.


What makes today’s world so scary is that we are in an environment where it is progressively more difficult to “calculate the odds.” We have so much information available, that it is hard to tell the difference between important and unimportant variables. We fear guessing wrong.

We’re being asked to become more agile. To be more open to change. To be more flexible and willing to experiment. To take the risk of being wrong in order to progress. To collaborate with others so we can combine perspectives. To actively seek information and feedback.

Dr. Warner Burke at Columbia University calls this collection of behaviors Learning Agility. He, and other organizational psychologists, feel that these behaviors are the most helpful when navigating through what is progressively believed to be a volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous world.


Our best chance at establishing flow is to find ways to chunk our tasks such that we feel a level of certainty and control over those tasks. We also want to ensure that those tasks allow us to achieve an appropriate balance between the challenge of the task and the skills we have available.

Dr. John Berardi, in the fitness and nutrition context, often talks about getting folks to break down a behavior change (like eating better) into a single step so small that the client is at least 90% confident they can do it.

If they find that they are failing – they break that step even SMALLER until they CAN do it. Hang out, master that, then take the next step.

Berardi found that a small task, done consistently, helps clients feel successful and empowered. “As they build small achievement on small achievement and solve little problem after little problem…clients learn crucial skills.” More importantly, clients are “repeatedly confronted with evidence that they CAN make different, and better, choices in their daily lives.”

(Berardi The Essentials of Sport and Exercise Nutrition, Certification Manual, 3rd ed. 377)


The Hazard of Stretch Goals

If we stretch too far, we get out of flow state and into stress state. Think about the times when you have been asked to do something under a tight deadline and it is something you have never done before. How stressed were you? How did you perform? What was the result?

According to research out of MIT studying the impact of stretch goals on organizational performance, stretch goals, rather than improving performance, lowered performance in most instances. This, the researchers hypothesize, is due to the natural inclination to over-estimate one’s skills and capacities.

Stretch goals and utilization -

We want to believe we are like the inhabitants of Garrison Keillor’s fictional Lake Woebegon – where the children are all above-average. We tend to estimate our skills and our capacities based on our best selves.

The Dunning–Kruger effect states that the low skilled are overconfident while the high skilled are more accurate in assessing their skill. In apparent support of this effect, many studies have shown that low performers overestimate their performance while high performers are more accurate. 2015 research out of the University of Gottenberg validates this hypothesis, along with other significant research efforts performed after David Dunning and Justin Kreuger’s 1999 paper.


There is also the question of context – do you have the cushion if your effort fails? The MIT researchers noted that the organizations that did best with stretch goals tended to have other efforts that mitigated any losses as a result of failure. They had something to fall back on.


For individuals, this is a question of your buffer. How is your time? How is your energy? How is your focus?


Kaizen – 1% Better Every Day

“A journey of a thousand miles must begin with the first step” – Lao Tzu

There is a way to nudge yourself (and others) towards improvement while minimizing the threat that we stretch to the point of damage.

This is the concept of Kaizen.

What minor improvement can you make in your existing life and with your existing resources?

The benefit of this approach is that it leverages your current circumstances and resources.

It’s also significantly more sustainable and though it is not “dramatic,” it is more likely to work and stick.


When Revolutionary Change is Necessary

Revolutionary change is an important tool in the toolkit. Sometimes, you just have to do it.


Need to get sober? Stop drinking!

Diagnosed with diabetes? Overhaul your diet!

Hate your career? Get a new one!

Those techniques work. Like a charm. There are times when one MUST go the wrenching Revolutionary route.

However, we tend to approach change initiatives, both personal and professional, with the hammer of Revolutionary change.

Is it any wonder most of us are over-stressed and change-fatigued?

Use revolution either when the increments aren’t creating the change at the pace the environment demands or when there is a plateau of some sort that can’t be gently nudged.


Keep in mind:

If you find you need to perform revolutionary change – better clear your plate.

Over 15,000 implementations of the 4 Disciplines of Execution, the Franklin Covey team discovered the following about prioritizing goals:

These findings do not account for the differences in the time, energy, cognitive load, and resources each goal requires.

Then, let’s break this down into the habits that support those goals:

If we focus on one habit at a time, we have an 85% chance of it sticking.

Focus on 2 habits at a time….we’re down to only a 35% chance of either habit sticking, nevermind both

Three or more….less than 10 percent chance of that habit sticking.

Fundamentally – the more you try to do – the less you accomplish.

Since Revolutionary change requires changing a whole bunch of habits at once – is it any wonder that our attempts to radically reshape our lives in 3 months fail?


Our ability to balance skill and challenge is impacted by how much stress we are under and how many tasks we have on our plate.

Anytime we pursue a goal or start a project, we are instituting change. Any change is a learning experience. Our ability to learn a new skill or new information is impacted by the amount of stress we are under and the number of tasks on our plate.

We’ve already talked about the research that multitasking means that we don’t do our tasks well, but there is also research that shows that when we multitask, we don’t learn very well either.

Separate studies out of the University of Michigan, the University of Vermont, St. Johns University, California State University and the University of Texas all show that when we multitask as we try to learn, our learning becomes more shallow. Our brains don’t process information in a way that develops the ability to apply that information into novel contexts. This ability to apply one’s skills in multiple contexts is a hallmark of mastery. As a result of multitasking while we are trying to learn new things, we have less skill to leverage.


On top of that, when we multitask, it takes longer to finish any one thing. And those unfinshed tasks create cognitive load. Part of your working memory continues processing those unfinished tasks. This is called the Zeigarnik effect.


Having unfinished tasks on our plate can creates stress. Roy Baumeister and EJ Masicampo at Florida State University discovered that people who were given a task couldn’t successfully move on to the main task if the first task was incomplete, because it was still in their active memory. However, when the participants made plans to complete the first task later, this freed them from the distraction and constant thinking of the uncompleted task.


We often find ourselves in a situation where we have difficulty executing on those plans. And that stress impacts our ability to learn and the level of challenge we can tolerate. Too much stress, and we may fall into learned helplessness.


As a result, having too many tasks to do at once means that the level of challenge that the task presents needs to be significantly lower than when we can focus at our fullest potential.

Our challenge is to create an environment for ourselves that allows us to focus. We need to be able to divide our tasks in such a way that we can establish certainty and control around our activity. And we need to balance the challenge of the task with the skills we have available, keeping in mind that the level of challenge may need to be lower if we have too much on our plate.





Growth Mindset and Willpower

When I started school in Northern Virginia in the early 70s, the school system applied a battery of tests to determine the trajectory of each child’s educational experience. These tests ‘labeled’ the child for the duration of that child’s K-12 educational experience.

I was lucky. They labeled me ‘gifted.” This provided opportunities outside of the standard classroom and gave me a more flexible, experiential education.

My brother, arguably the smarter and definitely the more sociable of the two of us, didn’t do as well on the test and wound up saddled with teachers that bored him to tears at best or were openly hostile at worst.

Those labels haunt us into adulthood. Labels applied at age 3-5 follow us around. From the educational opportunities offered us to the paths well-meaning adults encourage us to take to the careers and career trajectories open to us.

People look to our labels and our pasts to determine what they think we should do in the future.

Carol Dweck calls this the ‘fixed mindset.’

It’s a belief that who we are stays static. That our qualities are carved in stone. That we are not capable of more as we get older. That the tests we take in toddlerhood provide an accurate short-hand for who we are as adults.

This assumption shows up in personality tests, job descriptions and the sorting tools used in recruitment that emphasize what you have done versus what you can do and searching by keywords, and, frequently, once you get a job and prove to be good at it.

What’s worse – “This mindset creates an urgency to prove yourself over-and-over. If you have only a certain amount of intelligence, a certain personality, and a certain moral character – well, then you’d better prove that you have a healthy dose of them. It simply wouldn’t do to look or feel deficient in these most basic characteristics.”

In her research, Dweck found that the mindset one adopts profoundly affects the way you lead your life and how you interact with the world.

If you feel that you have a certain hand you were dealt and you have to make the most of it, Dweck finds that most people react by pushing hard, hiding mistakes, and interpreting negative events as a reflection of one’s competence and worth.

If you believe that where you are at is just a starting point, you are more likely to use any negative events as a learning opportunity. You are more likely to keep working towards your goals when faced with challenges and setbacks. You are more likely to seek solutions. You are more likely to try new things.


Developing a Personal Growth Mindset

For us to be successful at the changes we wish to make, we need to assume that we can grow and develop mastery despite what the environment tells us and despite the educational and psychological labels bestowed upon us through standardized intelligence and personality tests.

Cultivating a growth mindset requires an unshakeable belief that challenges are an opportunity to learn vs. a statement on your competence and worth.

It requires recognizing when you are slipping into a fixed mindset.

For example, I went through a phase during the writing of this book where I wanted to quit. I had a pile of books, papers, and unrelated scraps of writing that did not want to come together. My writing looked like the academic papers I had been reading and my grammar-checker was having a field day. The whole scenario was a flashback to the time 25 years prior when I wrote my Master’s thesis – my advisor’s bleeding red pen (though this time, digital and through a writing app) and all.

Fixed mindset would have me quit. Pausing and asking “What am I learning here? What’s the next right step to get back on track?” is the growth mindset at work.


Our mindset determines whether we do the things we know we should do. It also determines how we interpret the effort.

A recent study in the November 2018 Journal of Experimental Psychology found that developing a growth mindset helped to enhance perseverance – especially when the situation or the goal required sustained effort.


Consider the last time you experienced effort. This could be during a workout and you hit the “intensity” part of the session, sitting during meditation and monkey-mind kicks in, standing in front of the fridge choosing between pie and fruit, learning a new skill for work, or any other context that requires perseverance.

How did you react?

Did you throw your hands in the air and determine you weren’t cut out for this anyway? Did you determine that you “hit your limits?”

Or did you see it as a sign that you are strengthening your skills? Did you use the experience as a learning opportunity?

Neither answer is wrong. In certain areas of our lives, we are more likely to throw our hands in the air and quit. For some of us, it’s with dieting. For others, it’s schooling. It’s worth paying attention to which areas of your life you are more likely to give up at the sign of effort.

Carol Dweck boils it down to one question: “When do you feed smart: when you’re flawless or when you’re learning.”

Cultivating a belief that effort is a sign of strengthening and expansion helps us persist when we hit the inevitable dip.

We’re going to need this belief as we make the changes necessary to live the life of our dreams.



Short of going to rehab or another way of totally separating yourself from your current environment in other ways, we live within an environmental context.

We are part of a larger whole. When looking at any personal change, it helps to look at that whole.

Ken Wilber provides a nice framework that can help us – AQAL (All Quadrants All Levels)

This framework accommodates the complexity of our environment.

(Citation - New picture in development)

Go to Ken Wilber’s book The Integral Vision for a comprehensive explanation of this model. I have found that, on the scale of personal change, knowing what level you, others, or the environment unnecessarily overcomplicates things. Chances are, you don’t need to know whether you are working at the Orange Achiever Self or the Green Sensitive Self to lose weight.)

Wilber noted that many of our languages have 1st person, 2nd person and 3rd person pronouns.

1st person is the person who is speaking. I in the singular. We in the plural.

2nd person is the person I is speaking to. You in both the singular and plural. You All (Y’all) in the plural in the American South and parts of the Midwest.

3rd person is the person(s) or thing(s) I am speaking about. It in both the singular and plural.

Wilber then separates the I and the We in his framework.

His quadrant definitions become:

  • I – Interior Individual – Intentional

  • We – Interior Collective – Cultural

  • It – Exterior Individual – Behavioral

  • Its – Exterior Collective – Systems and Environment

We are going to leverage the quadrants in this framework to help us with planning. I’m going to go into each quadrant in more detail in Chapter 5. For personal change planning, we’re not going to worry about determining which level we are at and the levels that others are seemingly at. It’s enough to know that there are levels and a trajectory for growth.

Let’s start where we are at.

When looking at change in large groups, looking at all quadrants AND all levels is helpful.


It ALL starts with I

“To radically re-engineer the system, we will have to simultaneously re-engineer ourselves.”

(Terry Patten, A New Republic of the Heart, pg 56)

All change starts with the I. This includes large-scale, paradigmatic change.

The I is the ONLY place where we have any semblance of control.

We can influence others through our interactions.

We CANNOT control the externals.

The belief that you can grow and interpreting challenges as steps towards strength and mastery is critical.

Without this foundation, we will have difficulty getting through the dip.


James Clear, in his fantastic book Atomic Habits (Amazon link, non-affiliate), talks about the relationship between Outcome (Have) - Process (Do) - Identity (Be).

Many people begin the process of changing their habits by focusing on what they want to achieve (Outcome/Have). This leads us to outcome-based habits.

The alternative is to build identity-based habits (Identity/Be). With this approach, we start by focusing on who we wish to become.

James Clear, Atomic Habits, pg 42-43

As with many other authors focused on the change process, he implores us to build identity-based habits; "Behavior that is incongruent with the self does not last."

Yet we still start with desired outcomes and changing our processes to map to the outcomes. Then we wonder why change fails.

I think we do this because:

  1. Most people would rather electrocute themselves than spend time alone with their thoughts.

    Reflection is required when considering questions of identity.

  2. We are frequently unclear about what this "new identity" looks like. We prefer the known over the unknown. This is especially true when we are uncertain about the probability of success.


  3. Our culture, education, and media focus on trying to change and control things outside of yourself. Educators, Project Managers, Marketers, MBAs, Systems Designers - the foundation of their training is based on controlling/"influencing"/"motivating" others and "intervening in the system." The focus on self is still fringe in business - seemingly limited to the more "spiritual" leaders and the occasional admonishment in church.

  4. It's easier to design rapid feedback mechanisms and metrics for measurable items (outcomes and processes) than it is to design a feedback mechanism and metrics for the self. Most identity-based activities require time, continuous practice over that time, and moment-to-moment decision-making before seeing desired outcomes. Think dieting, weight loss, meditation, etc.

I have also found that identity-based habits tend to occur organically.

My attempts at forcing identity-based change ("I will be a PEACEFUL PERSON, DAMMIT!") tend not to go so well.

Also, at least in my experience, identity-based change also has a layer of self-loathing attached. The feeling that there is something "wrong with me" that I need to "fix" so that "I can be a better person."

Less neurotic people probably don't have that nagging sense of self-hatred when they embark on major identity-based change initiatives.

Still, I suspect enough people grapple with the feeling that there is "something wrong with them" that I think we ignore it at our own peril.

I think there may be a way to approach this without the exhortations to "BE THE CHANGE!"

I don't think we really don't know what that means until we are in the thick of trying.

Furthermore, there's a lot we can leverage in our external, outcomes-focused paradigm.


I don't think we have a true notion of how our identity needs to shift when we make a change until we get into the change.

Furthermore, we tend to get into change initiatives from where we are now. Our old selves.

There are rare instances where we can completely cut off everyone who knew us before, dramatically change environments, and comprehensively forget our entire past.

Even if we manage to successfully abandon the people and the environment, the scars from the past still linger. Old behavior, beliefs, and decision-making processes still surface (barring a major brain-health crisis).

I think we can take advantage of our inclination to "system-design our way to change."

The adjustment I would make is to add a consideration of who we want to BE at the end of the process.

How does our identity need to shift for us to be successful?

What changes do we need to make to our beliefs?

The valley of change is where the lessons of identity occur.

As you practice, is the identity you need to adopt to be successful with this change fulfilling?

Are you finding yourself knocking up against a deep-seated value that you do not want to let go of?

Are you becoming someone you would be proud to be? Is the identity change an improvement?

How are your relationships with others? What is changing around you as you take this journey? Are those changes helpful or harmful?

"Faking it till ya make it" has some value. It allows you to test a new identity. It allows you to experience a new way of being and seeing whether it truly fits.

One word of warning: There's a thin line between "faking it till ya make it" and being inauthentic. I've found it helpful to be clear about the changes I am trying to make (to the best of my ability) and recruit supporters (when I can).

If it is a change that requires some stealth - action over words.

People will figure it out eventually and make their decision.


Whether we like it or not, people observe our change process. They create judgements about what and how we are doing – whether we have told them about the change we are making or not.

In many respects, we are all potential leaders and we are all examples for others.

Are you an aspirational model or a cautionary tale?

Werner Erhard and Michael Jensen identified 4 broad “ways of being” that will increase the possibility of success in your change and get you closer to the inescapable value of integrity.

Terry Patten, in his commentary on these “ways of being,” notes that we are all imperfect in our attempts to practice these ways of being. Sometimes, we try to fit in and are inauthentic with others and with ourselves. Sometimes we point the finger at others and play the blame game rather than do our own work. Sometimes we focus on self-interest in ways that harm others. Sometimes we aren’t true to our word and work to hide that fact.

“People consistently act inconsistently, unaware of the contradiction between their espoused theory and their theory-in-use, between the way they think they are acting, and the way they really act.” – Chris Argyris

Hypocrisy is a universal human failing. As Erhard and Jensen observe “If you think this does not apply to you, you are fooling yourself about fooling yourself.”

The best we can do is face our own failings and hypocrisy and work to address the harm it causes when it happens. See Appendix – 12 Steps


Change Challenges Identity

It dawned on me, as I read Atomic Habits (Amazon, non-affiliate link) and Fisher's 2012 version of the change curve, that the dip in Fisher's change curve is driven by identity.


How does the change challenge your identity?

Fisher speaks to this in his 2012 paper, but I think we underplay the emotions and the threat to identity involved with ANY change. This is particularly true in the corporate environment, where we assume people are cogs and remove the variable of identity.

Over many implementations, I've observed repeatedly that something as simple as an applications upgrade can derail due to threats to identity.

Someone who has proudly created an effective process in the old tool resists because the implementation team inadvertently threatens their identity as a "creator" and "designer" (even if they don't use those exact terms) as we try to encourage new ways of working.

Someone who has built deep mastery of a specific technology resists because the new technology threatens their identity as "expert."

Someone used to "mastering their domain" resists because the natural discomfort and challenge of learn something new threatens their identity as "competent."

Even with self-inflicted change, we can feel this emotional resistance to threats to our identity.

For example, the "new me" wants to be peaceful.

The "old me" wants to continue being clever and snarky.

I'm not sure what peaceful looks like. My environment rewards clever and snarky. My environment expects me to be clever and snarky. So now what?

Finding the answer to that is the journey. Do I continue trying to be peaceful and restrain my clever snarkiness? Do I use the clever snarky voice in my head as a mindfulness exercise? Do I decide that peaceful is an unrealistic identity for me and abandon the effort?

This is where having a strong "why" comes in handy.


Fundamentally, all change asks who you want to BE.

Be clear on the answer. Be clear why you want to be this new person. Be clear on how this new person is going to engage with the world.

You won't make it through the change curve without this.

And if you are not clear on all this, it’s OK.

We’ll figure it out together.




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