Snakes and ladders
‘The big question is, who rolls the dice?’ (Pav Ponnoosami)
You may have seen change models that depict human experience as a linear curve. The idea is that people progress through change by transitioning gradually through different emotional phases. On the whole, it’s a useful tool – except, that is, when it isn’t. Perhaps a more apt metaphor for complex change in organisations today could be a snakes and ladders board. (If you’re not familiar with this children’s game, it involves rolling a dice to move a piece from start to finish, step by step. If you land on a ladder, you accelerate forward. If you land on a snake, you slide backwards.)
That’s so often what happens in change – and so often what it feels like too. We step forward then, all of a sudden, someone or something hits us and knocks us off course. We trip up, fall down, get up, dust ourselves off, steady ourselves and find our feet again. We take another step, more cautiously this time and, unexpectedly, happily, something positive shifts. Wow, we leap forward now filled with fresh energy, confidence and hope. Success! We smile, breathe…then, shockingly, the ground gives way. Woah?! How did that happen? Where did that come from? Two steps forward, one step back.
Why is this metaphor useful? It creates a realistic expectation, an anticipation, that enables us to handle change. If we know in advance that change will feel chaotic at times; that multiple changes from different sources may well collide and create conflict; that not everything will be as smooth, clear, organised and coordinated as we may hope for; that sometimes our energy will dip or rise, that we may feel irritable, excited, annoyed all in the same day and – yet – that we will get through this; that the ‘miserable middle’ is only the middle; we can keep moving forward, pushing ahead.
It normalises what otherwise feels abnormal. It helps us not to panic. It begs interesting questions too. For instance: Whose game is this? Who decides the rules and why? What piece have I chosen to represent me – or my team? Who or what are the snakes and ladders here? Am I a ladder for others or a snake? How resilient and resourceful am I if I land on a snake? Who am I competing with? What would it mean to win? Who roles the dice? As leaders, coaches, OD and trainers, we can listen for the metaphors that our people/clients use; explore them playfully; experiment with alternatives.
‘I was embarrassed to ask the king for a cavalry bodyguard to protect us from bandits on the road. We had just told the king, ‘Our God lovingly looks after all who seek him.’’ (Ezra 8:22)
I don’t often laugh when reading biblical texts but this honest, heartfelt confession did make me smile. The writer, a role model and leader, found himself in a daunting situation and the faith he had felt in more secure circumstances now felt pretty daunting too. It was a moment of decision and it feels so contemporary, so real. Would he be willing to put his feet where his mouth had been? I can so relate to that tension. Do I stick with my vision, my beliefs, my values, when things get tough – or do I shrink back, compromise, take the easier road? Am I willing to take genuine steps in faith?
In the UK, we have ‘zebra crossings’ on busy roads, intended to provide safe crossing points for pedestrians. If I stand at the edge of a crossing and see cars flying past at speed, I may well hesitate to step onto the crossing for fear of being injured or killed. In fact, for visitors to the UK, choosing not to step onto the crossing will look and feel like a rational decision. Yet here’s the rub: until I take that first step, that step of faith, the cars are not obliged to stop. It’s only when I do so that the traffic will come to a halt, as if by magic. Change is what happens as we move forward.
So back to Ezra – and to us. Faith is acting on what we believe, as if it were true. I can imagine that daunted feeling, that heart-racing moment, that deep-breaths experience before taking…that…step. It could be an unnerving time, a risk-taking venture, a profound exercise in trust; whether in God, our intuition, research, resources, training – or all of the above. It could also be a thrilling, life-giving adventure, taking us to the edges of what we had dared to imagine possible or hope for. As leader, coach, OD or trainer, how do you enable people to take scary steps? How do you do it too?
I was in Canada at a change leadership event aimed at paving the way for a new global initiative. My role was as organisation development consultant, invited to share psychological and cultural insights that could turn out to be significant as things moved forward. I was new to change management on such a large, complex, international scale and, at times, felt out of my depth, as did a number of my colleagues who were experienced experts in the field. We persevered and it was a useful event.
At the end I asked Ric Matthews, programme leader, to give me some feedback on how he had experienced both me and my contribution during those 2 weeks. I was new to the organisation and keen to learn. He looked at me directly and gave me a fairly succinct list of things he had seen and had experienced as my strengths, along with a similar-length list of things that he had seen as my weaknesses. I could recognise everything he described and thanked him for his honesty and clarity.
Ric ended by saying, ‘My advice is to focus on and build on your strengths, not to focus on and spend effort addressing your weaknesses. Your weaknesses may in fact turn out to be the flip sides of your strengths. In addressing your weaknesses, you may inadvertently undermine your strengths.’ This was my first introduction to an explicit strengths-based approach to leadership and change. It felt energising, inspiring and liberating. It has had a huge impact on my work and career since.
If you’re familiar with appreciative inquiry and-or solutions-focused coaching, you will notice resonances with a strengths-based approach. It’s about building on what is going well, shifting our attention from problems to solutions, moving our gaze from deficits to possibilities. It’s being aware of what we do well, using and developing it and releasing our full potential to become all we can be. How do you use this type of positive psychology in your work as leader, coach, OD or trainer?
I was astonished and alarmed to feel the building shudder each time the heavy vehicle went past. The doors inside my home rattled loudly, pictures slewed on the walls and cracks appeared around the window and door frames. I felt a new and urgent empathy with people living in earthquake-prone zones. I couldn’t believe it. Phone in hand, I hurriedly called the construction site manager. He sounded surprised but agreed to come and inspect the damage the following week.
Sure enough, the doorbell rang and here were 2 men dressed in hard hats and safety outfits on the doorstep. The contract manager with whom I had spoken previously introduced himself politely. The other, apparently the local site manager, stood back with distinct reluctance and scepticism written on his face. I reached out, shook hands then took them for a guided tour of the house, pointing out various cracks on route. Their reactions and responses couldn’t have been more different.
The contract manager listened carefully, took note of the damage and promised to ensure it would be rectified quickly, explaining what that would involve in practice. He also offered to inspect the exterior walls to check for any signs of structural damage. The site manager, by contrast, insisted in defensive tone that the vehicle could not have shaken the house, that the cracks could not have been caused by shaking and that they are, instead, a normal part of a building settling. Right.
So what are some lessons here for leaders, coaches, OD and trainers? I will list a few that spring to mind: 1. How open are we to invite and receive critical feedback on our leadership, interventions, actions or services? 2. How do others feel when they give us feedback? 3. How do we respond to feedback, especially if it is unsolicited or may leave us looking and feeling vulnerable, foolish or mistaken? 4. If/when cracks appear, what do we do to restore relationship, confidence and trust?
I'm a psychological coach, trainer and OD consultant. Curious to discover how can I help you? Get in touch!
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