How strange to be pondering a theory of change upon the eve of Advent, a season more generally reserved (in theory, if not in practice) for contemplation, reflection, and silence. At least it seems strange on the surface. But just below that smooth meditative surface is the churn, the anticipation, the “hurry-up-I-can’t-take-all-this-waiting” desire for THE change that Advent points us to. There is no change as remarkable as new life – and for most believers I know who choose to celebrate the season, that new life means transformational change on a global scale. Really paradigm-shifting, earth-shattering stuff.
And so I am here thinking about such things and what it means practically for people wanting to make a significant positive difference in some small or large way on this planet (or simply in their own little corner of it). The thoughts that follow are my best practical attempt at this time to articulate my own theory of change. I include at the end of this post, as my holiday gift to readers, a list of books that have influenced my thinking on this subject and that I recommend heartily for the Change Agents on your gift lists.
Change can and does occur for individuals and organizations all the time without the application of any forethought or intentionality. Sometimes it makes life better for us, and other times… not so much. Most of the time, the change acts upon us without any significant impact. The weather changes constantly (especially if you live in New England!), technology changes frequently, fashions change, and none of the agents responsible for those changes ask us for permission or if we believe in or embrace the changes. (Well, they didn’t ask me.) We simply choose to react or not react.
And that is the key: We chooseto be active or passive in the context of change in our lives. Many times the change is in response to an external adjustment to the status quo (such as weather, technology, or fashion trends), and other times it is mission driven. Either way, the key difference is the decision to be the “Change Agent,” to no longer be a passive recipient but to be an active influencer. Once an individual or organization has taken on the mantel of Change Agent, it becomes critical to approach the change with tools appropriate for the endeavor.
There are seven basic components that work together toward the goal of positive and sustainable change. These tools are critically important for individuals or organizations that have chosen to be active agents of change. They are not linear, and they are not always equal. In some situations, one component will have far more weight than any other, while in different circumstances, there will be a fluctuation across all components, a give and take throughout a change process. Yet in every serious change effort, each one of these components will need consideration and application.
Figure 1 shows how these components work together to move the change forward.
Figure 1: Seven Components of Change
Here is what I mean by each of these components:
1. Specificity. Identify the area of change in such a way that allows for clear goal-setting. At a very basic level, defining the goal will let you know when you have met it. It provides you with the ability to measure your level of attainment and to set new goals. There is also an aspect of dissatisfaction in this component. While the most effective Change Agents I know are joyful, they also tend to be constantly dissatisfied. They see specific things (not vague angst) that can and should be improved, and they set personal goals to improve, constantly raising the bar for themselves and their organizations.
2. Belief. Create and/or check for internal buy-in (within the individuals or groups that are the targeted beneficiaries of the change) that the specified change is necessary and worth the effort. This includes individuals’ internal belief that they are capable of adjusting their behavior to accommodate the change. Belief is not always necessary at the beginning of a change effort, but to sustain the change, it is absolutely required.
3. Expectation. Create a sense of positive inevitability and momentum through external sources of encouragement and accountability (community, mentor, teacher, family, and/or friends). This frequently comes in the form of someone (or some persons or institutions) that have an assumption of attainment, an external belief in the ability to make positive change that supports the internal belief.
4. Exposure. Be open to and seek out opportunities for newness. Change occurs when something new is introduced into the status quo. Specific changes require targeted exposure, which frequently comes through education, training, and review of leading resources in the topic. Such exposure can (and frequently will) lead to unexpected opportunities for further goal setting in the specified area of positive change. It is simply the “Oh, what a great idea, I must try that” effect. It is what incents large organizations to invest heavily in things like benchmarking, research and development, and competitive intelligence. It is what causes individuals to try a new form of exercise, or a new recipe, or an iPad. Exposure leads to innovation.
5. Will. Fuel the internal fortitude and energy to start something new and see it through. Will is different from belief – you can believe that something is necessary without possessing the will to make it happen (e.g. most people agree that exercise, a balanced diet, and a smoke-free lifestyle is better than the alternatives, but that belief by itself will not make someone alter behavior). You can also have the will to make a change without fully buying into its necessity, if external forces and other incentives are strong enough to support it.
6. Practice. Create a habit through repetition, ritual, and mindfulness that leads to sustainable lifestyle change. Take action that will get you closer to your goals. Putting plans into action and celebrating early successes can feed will, belief, and expectation in very positive ways. But practice is more than taking those important first steps. Repeatable habits have to be practical, usable, and meaningful.
7. Integration. Engage holistically, integrating mind, body, emotions, and spirit toward the specific positive change. Achievable and sustainable change is not done in siloes. In the context of organizational change, integration of the change (particularly if it impacts multiple stakeholders) must occur across teams, departments, and levels. In this way, all seven change components work together for meaningful, sustainable change.
These components are infinitely applicable, yet may not incorporate all aspects of change that occurs at the micro or macro level. What have I missed? Which components ring true for your situation? How are you preparing for the next big change in your life? Do share your story of change and expose others to new ways of being a force for positive and sustainable impact.
My Change Agent Book List
These are just a handful of my muses, those major Change Agents who have inspired, strengthened, and sharpened my thinking on this subject. I am sure to add to this list over time. Let me know what books have influenced you in your positive change initiatives and I will add to this list with a credit for the recommendation to you.
Change or Die: The Three Keys to Change at Work and in Life by Alan Deutschman
First, Break All the Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently
Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap… and Others Don’t
Love Is the Killer App: How to Win Business and Influence Friends
The Power of Pull: How Small Moves, Smartly Made, Can Set Big Things in Motion by John Hagel III
Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation by Steven Johnson
Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within (Shambhala Library) by Natalie Goldberg