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The Dance of Change

This was meant to be a post about my experience as a trailing spouse. Mrs. B. had a meeting planned for sunny Senegal, and I planned to tag along. It isn’t every day that someone says, “do you want to come to Senegal with me?” We were both looking forward to leaving on Sunday.

Now it’s Tuesday, and I’m still sitting in Greenwich. Seems the Senegalese Opposition leader, Ousmane Sonko, has had a complex outcome to his high-profile legal case. Whatever the merits of the case itself, Sonko is popular with young people in the country, and tensions between his supporters and the government have recently boiled over. For the moment at least, our Senegalese dream is just that.

Our change of plans wasn’t as dramatic as many of the changes we have all endured in recent years, but there is no hierarchy of hardship . So as I set about the unrewarding process of cancelling our plans, I got to thinking about why change is so hard.

Before you run away, I’m not going to explore every aspect of this question. But the troubles in Senegal reminded me of what seems to be a problem that’s still on the increase globally. Too many countries are experiencing a brand of politics that makes up its own self-serving reality, uses its platform and a loose attachment to the rules, traditions or moral codes that govern politics in most countries, and desperately hangs on to power at all costs. Those who have followed this path and those that oppose them seem woefully ill-equipped to find their way back up the path to responsible government.

Divisive politics is neither new nor unexpected, but today’s divisions seem deeper than at any time before in my (nearly) 50 years around the sun. Political opponents have always disagreed, at times vehemently, on ideas, policies or principles, but I don’t recall a time when so many notionally democratic countries have been so short on the ability to moderate their voice or do the “right” thing. In country after country, there is a tendency for political parties to embrace their most radical elements, while partisanship threatens to take over almost everything else as an organising principle.

Gone is the ability to reach across the aisle; to compromise; or to moderate tone. I don’t know of anywhere where this has resulted in better overall governance, or decisions that are in the interests of the majority, but there's no question it's happening regardless. The real question is, what can we do about it?

My mother is a fan of books on sociology and psychology. She's always been very dedicated to the well-being of our family, and as such she’s particularly fond of books that talk about societal or group dynamics. Growing up, I remember her relating the central tenet of one such tome to me.

I don't know the book or its author (please drop me a line if you think you do), but the picture it paints is clear: any relationship in society is like a dance. If we’re part of the group, we learn the dance, we perform our part, and take comfort in knowing what’s going on. We may not love the music or enjoy the part we play, but it’s easier to do our part than to risk social exclusion by agitating for change. I’ve lived or worked in several different countries, and in each one, one of the central tasks of settling in is defining and learning my role in their societal dance.

But what if you want to change the dance? After all, as we just noted, many of our societies have fractured. Dance groups once competed by offering slightly more modern music, a few unique moves or a different take on the future. Now they seem to want everyone to move between waltzing and breakdancing.

While that may feel like a forever thing, it isn't. These groups have chosen to ignore a fundamental truth that hasn't changed with their rhetoric. And that truth is that if you want change – if you really want to make it happen and make it last – the way to do it is one step at a time. Revolution may catch the headlines, but evolution lasts.

In other words, to change societal dynamics, somebody has to introduce a new set of steps. Someone needs to say “let’s try this instead.” There will be a period of confusion and a lot of resistance; it helps to make the first change a small one to reduce the inertia of status quo. Still, regardless how you start, it remains true that if you can hold your nerve long enough and work on gradually building support for the new dance, you’ll eventually prevail. That's true whether it's a big change like coming back from extreme politics, or whether it's a smaller one, like gaining political support for a legislative position.

Let’s look at this idea in the context of your organisation: whatever you do for a living, you can probably see how its current operating context could be improved. Perhaps you need a regulatory framework that makes it easier to ship between countries. Maybe, you have a relationship with a stakeholder group that has become more damaging than constructive. You might have been drawn into a political firefight over one of your products and are considering how to respond or navigating a course between what’s best for the organisation’s shareholders in the short-term and what will enhance its long-term value. Whatever your challenge is, think of the following:

  1. Why do I want this change? Who besides me will benefit? What is good and bad about it from the perspective of others? (NB: If you want a change where you are the only one to benefit, stop now. There may be routes to that end-point, but that’s a different kind of end-point for another day.

  2. Specifically what needs to change to make my thing happen? A rule? A decision-making process? An attitude? Several different things? (Hint: it will be several different things) Map them out.

  3. Who are my allies in this fight? Who shares my goal, even if they have different reasons for wanting what I want?

  4. What are the alternative routes to making this change happen? Is there a (realistic) path of least resistance? Be creative, but also realistic. Try not to be too complicated in your thinking.

  5. Am I committed to this change? Am I willing to put enough (human and financial) resource in to make it happen? About how long will it take to change things? Where will ongoing funding come from?

One more thing: banish all talk of 'quick wins' (or at least partk them for now). Achieving proper change takes time, and rarely “just happens.” Quick wins may be possible along the way, but they should never be the objective. Carefully make a plan that outlines how and when to introduce your new dance moves. Stay the course, make adjustments as you move forward and collect intelligence, and don’t forget to listen: an assumed opponent may turn out to be an ally, and even the shortest conversation might give you a new idea. With time and commitment, you’ll start to see change happen.

So go on. Dance yourself to the future you want. Just remember to save a little dance for me.


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