I used to be a change agent. CEO’s and VP’s hired me to be the hand that rocked their cradle, when they needed to turn the dial up on profits, get salespeople enthusiastic about selling, or turn their brilliant, albeit uber-nerdish employees into emotionally intelligent humans. I came in when things that used to work, no longer worked and intervention was needed. I was the interface between people, their behaviour and the organization. And, I’ve done it for over 15 years. That’s plenty of time to figure out why about 75 percent of all change initiatives fail. What I am about to dispense, is a condensed account of what I’ve learned through blood, sweat, and tears.
Only 5 percent of our awareness and behaviour is conscious; 95 percent is unconscious. The ability of our organism and nervous system to self-organize is astonishing and beyond our ability to comprehend it, let alone — control it. When it comes ‘business as usual’ — things such as pumping blood through our veins or managing the firing of 100 billion nerve cells, this phenomenon is pretty handy. I mean, would you want to wake up every morning having to tell your heart how to beat, or your liver how to break down enzymes? Thanks, but no thanks. Right? We’ve got better things to do with our time. Yet, when it comes to changing our behaviour, the fact that we don’t have direct access to our unconscious awareness can be an enormous hindrance.
And this is the first reason why most change initiatives fail: they target the 95 percent, with the tools and tactics (i.e., information, awareness, urgency, plans) designed for the 5 percent. That’s like trying to shoot an African lion with a cotton ball.
Of frameworks & methods. Or, shooting lions with cotton balls.
“That’s simple,” a change agent reading this might say to themselves, “we’ll just get a .700 Nitro Express!” And that might work if you’re trying to kill the lion. Given that the African lion is an Endangered Species, however, you’d be treading on illegal grounds. I assume moreover, that the intention is not to “kill”, but to “tame the lion”. This is where neither cotton balls, nor calibre guns will do. What would?
The desert and the oasis
Let’s consider what this “5:95 Rule” really means. The image which we can use to describe the relationship between the unconscious and conscious awareness is the desert and the oasis. The 5 percent is the oasis, the 95 percent — the landscape of our unconscious — is the desert.
Just as a traveller cannot cross the desert by staying in the oasis, neither can a change journey happen without entering the landscape of the unconscious.
Around third century AD, a group of hermits, ascetics, and monks entered the records of our history under the name of “Desert Fathers & Mothers”. They earned their title by living in the desert for extended periods of time. They did not enter the desert in order to escape or get away from things. They entered the desert in order to unravel the landscape of their unconscious. And that came with battling with the deepest of fears and taming the scariest of lions. The Desert Fathers & Mothers understood the 95 percent. They returned back to the world and recorded their new found wisdom in the “Sayings of the Desert Fathers” volume.
Now, there are no Self-Help libraries in the desert, no dedicated shelves for Social Sciences, no Emotional Intelligence conferences, no leadership development schools. Where did their wisdom come from? From the same “hard-drive” where we all store ours: the unconscious.
Hiring change agents to push your agenda
If a change initiative is indeed so critical, and the CEO cares about it so deeply, why can’t he or she manage it to make it happen? Why borrow change agents to be the hand that rocks their cradle? The answer that you might give is that they are doing so because their own priorities are focused elsewhere. But if their focus is elsewhere, how can it be expected that their people’s focus should be upon them or the change that they desire?
Here’s the real reason why change agents are hired to push a CEO’s agenda. The only way to truly understand change, the only way to drive it, is to understand yourself and this cannot happen without exploring the landscape of the unconscious. This would require leaders to join the allegorical rows of Desert Fathers & Mothers from time to time. And that’s the hardest endeavour anyone can undertake. The ‘desert’ is obscure, scorching hot, vast and scary. Staying sheltered in the comforts of the oasis of our awareness is much cosier. But someone has got to do the hard work and this is where the change agents come in.
Drop the easy quips
The work of a change agent is a work of courage in our day and age, one that requires wisdom and patience. Easy quips (frameworks, plans, methods) from the sidelines can only come from those who have never been there; who’ve never stood face to face with the maddening vastness of their unconscious.
To paraphrase a famous quote of the Russian saint, Seraphim of Sarov,
Acquire the spirit of change and a thousand people around you will be altered.
This is the true work of a true change agent. And that’s why I decided to stop being the hand that rocks cradles, or the whisperer of change strategies who spews out frameworks and plans from the comforts of the “oasis”. If we want to move beyond the stop-gap measures that simply keep things going, serious work of the heart needs to happen. I am ready to take the plunge into the places that scare me most and I am inviting you along.
Personal Development Talk
I am starting with a workshop that I will facilitate this Sunday (November 19) to about 40 brave and courageous people who are willing to take the plunge with me into the realms of their unconscious.
Sharing the practices and findings
These 40 pioneers will then be invited to steward a community: a place to share, connect, support and learn from like-minded, brave, explorers of the unconscious intelligence.
I’ve been a member of many groups before, but I have to say, even if it is with some bias, this is going to be like no other group. Based on principles self-awareness, courage, dedication, care and support and designated to those who are committed to explore and exchange both, their practices and findings. We’ll call ourselves the #gutsygeniuses.
“We are all responsible for speaking our truth and taking responsibility for the things we care about,” writes Liz Ryan, founder of Human Workplace. I know now, that by pushing other people’s agendas I am not being a change agent but an enabler of pussyfooting, and that doesn’t serve anyone: it doesn’t serve your people, it doesn’t serve their behaviour (or wellbeing) and it doesn’t serve the organization.
If you, as a leader or as an individual feel called to acquire the spirit of change, however – I am at your service.