“Do We Really Need to Burn the Ships?” (Change)


“You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.” – C.S. Lewis

“Change is inevitable, except from a vending machine.” – Robert C. Gallagher

In my first seminary class, the two instructors posed this question:

“How many Brethren does it take to change a light bulb?”

“Change?!  My grandfather put that light bulb in, and it was good enough for him!”

Google Dictionary defines “change” as “the act or instance of making or becoming different.”  We either cause change or experience circumstances that makes what we experience, different.  That certainly defines how what we currently are experiencing in this pandemic.

How do you react to change?  What do you notice about it in your organization, your relationships, your leadership, you outlook on life?  What would you say have been the “big changes” you’ve experienced in the past four months and how have you reacted?

The Change Curve

One way to begin to understand what you and those you lead are going through is to look at it through the lens of “The Change Curve,” a model originally developed by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross to explain the grieving process and adapted to help people understand their reactions to significant change or upheaval.

I’ve made some changes to the original change curve (sorry, but I couldn’t resist):

Change Curve_May2020

Remember back to January 2020.  Think of what you were satisfied with and what you weren’t even paying attention to that was “normal” in your life, your relationships, your work.  Things were “status quo” or normal.

Then, relatively suddenly, there was a dramatic change to your “normal” way of living, relating, and working.  Some vague, background talk about some virus all of sudden impacted your life in a dramatic way.  You were “staying home” and practicing “social distancing” and wearing a mask.

Change is an Emotional Roller Coaster

“We’re not responsible for our emotions; we fall into them.  We are responsible for what we do with them, once we’re in them.” – Julio Olalla

The moment that change happens, human beings typically respond with a series of emotions.  These emotions are triggered by the internal interpretations or “stories” that we tell ourselves as we try to process what happened.  The emotions listed on the left side of the curve lead deeper and deeper into what Zander and Zander call the “Downward Spiral” – a phenomenon that happens when our view of events take on similar negative interpretations, driving us deeper into a  story with seemingly no way out.  The resulting emotional impact can be seen on the left side of the graphic.  You get caught in the “spin cycle” of emotions.  But what to do?

The Downward Spiral vs. Fact and Possibility Thinking

Zander and Zander, in their book, “The Art of Possibility,” do suggest there is a way out that they call “Fact and Possibility Thinking.”  In this approach, you recognize you’re in the “Downward Spiral,” and you stop, take a breath, and ask yourself, “What verifiable facts am I working with?”

We often (always?) are the victims of our own internal narrative or “story,” that – because we’re the authors and we’re pretty smart if not downright brilliant – clouds our ability to see a fact (grounded assessment) from an interpretation (ungrounded assessment).  We build elaborate interpretations that, usually, are focused on the negative and what catastrophes await us.  Or worse, we build our interpretations on others’ ungrounded assessments.  This, of course, is not building your story on “solid ground.”

With “Fact and Possibility Thinking,” we have a way to put our story under the microscope and see what’s really factual.  This separation can actually shift us from anxiety and fear to curiosity and enthusiasm.  Once we have a verifiable fact, we ask ourselves, “What’s possible from this fact?”  Since we, as human beings, have infinite possibilities in front of us, making a list (brainstorming) is the next step.  Once we have a number of possibilities from the facts, which are we willing to experiment with?  (Remember, when we’re dealing with VUCA, there’s no “right” answer; only experiments we can try.)

Maybe This Isn’t the End of the World

This approach can lead to an understanding of what’s changed and changing (the bottom of the curve).  This is where we begin to accept the change and move into more exploration of the possibilities that the change has for us, individually.

This leads to the upward experience of emotions on the right side of the graphic – curiosity, hope, and enthusiasm.  While these sound great, they’re also in a “spin cycle,” where we get our hopes up, but then the “Downward Spiral” can creep in and take use down the slope.

In addition, there’s a “spin cycle” between the right and left sides of the curve.  If leadership leads us to believe that something will or may happen, and our hopes and enthusiasm take over, and then the “something” doesn’t happen, we can go back to the left side and find ourselves in resentment, resignation, frustration, and a host of other emotions as our “story” changes.

Once there’s clarity of what the “New Beginning” looks like, we then have the option to commit to it or not commit.  Again, leadership is essential to this because not only does the leader have to describe the “New or Next Normal,” he or she must make sure that it’s presented in a way that addresses the cares and concerns of the followers.  Without that commitment, any change process is pointless.  In fact, it may be a reason why we’ve seen such a lack of engagement in the global workforce.  With the bombardment of constant change that seems to be increasing at a frenetic pace, and many leaders who are acting from Reactive Mind, the clarity of “why” and “what’s in it for me” and “why should I care” may be missing.


The period from the end of the “Status Quo” to the “New Beginning” is called “Transition” (or as one author calls it, “Chaos”).  “Transition” can last hours, days, weeks, months, or even years.  Some organizations seem to be in a constant state of Transition.  In this stage, the “spin cycle” is operating at warp speed, as each individual is trying to make sense out of the change.

Leaders can influence the length of the “Transition” by doing two things:

  • When a current state “ends,” declare the ending, hold a “funeral” and allow people to grieve. Change is usually perceived as a threat at some level – to our competence (“I know how to do this; I don’t know how to do that”), our commitment (“I don’t see how this fits what I care about”), the structure of our organizations (“Everything worked fine when we did it the old way”) and even our identity.
  • From that moment, we have to create a vision of what the “new” or “next normal” will look like. While that’s difficult in situations like we’re in, Creative Mind leaders are capable of developing a compelling “why” and what the ideal looks like.  Spend a few minutes right now and envision what you want your organization to look like after the pandemic is over.  Tell the story that you’d like to be living.  Write it down and share it with those you lead

Yes, We Have to Burn the Boats

One example from history is the account of Hernán Cortés, the Spanish conquistador who, in 1519 burned the ships they had landed in Veracruz, sending the message that they would either conquer the land or die.  A little dramatic, but there’s a clear ending, little-to-no transition, and an almost immediate new beginning.  (Probably not a lot of time to grieve, either!)

But There Are Alternatives

In my own career, one such instance stands out where the leader effectively helped end an old way and begin a new one.

I started working at the Pennsylvania Chamber of Business and Industry in the mid-1990s.  On my first day, about 10:00, I got a call that everyone was to report to the lunchroom on the 4th floor, at the rear of the building.  I went up to the lunchroom and saw the entire staff gathered in rather festive mood, but had no idea why we were gathered there.

Suddenly, the door opened, and our leader, Floyd Warner, walked in, followed by George, the IT guy, pushing two carts loaded with what appeared to be a mainframe computer and some terminals.

With little fanfare, George walked over to the window, opened the window, and began dropping the items on his cart out the window, one-by-one, followed by the sound of each piece smashing on the concrete below (the lunchroom was in the back of the building, and they had made sure no one was walking there – no humans were harmed in this action).

At the conclusion of the last piece being dropped, Floyd announced, “We won’t be using the old computer system anymore.  We’ll be using the new system already installed on your desks.”  And with that, the meeting was over, the change had taken place, and we were off to use our “new” computers.

The Greek philosopher, Heraclitus said, “The only constant is change.”  Understanding some of the human dynamics in the process helps us to effectively lead through this constant.


© Geoff Davis, 5/15/20

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