Four Thoughts for Enabling Change

By Jim Dezieck

I have worked in two fields where a lot of attention is given to how change happens. Early in my career, I worked in the adult wellness field with individuals who wanted to make exercise or meditation a part of their lives. Now I work in organizational development, where I help people develop work skills individually and use them collectively to be more effective as a group. Through all of this work, I see four buckets of ideas that may help you manage change more successfully.

If you or your organization want to make a change, here are four key ideas to build into the effort:

1. Holding environment

This term from developmental psychology* describes the people, places, tools, and rituals that surround us at any given point in our lives. It's a mother's arms for a baby, an AA meeting and supportive home for someone recovering from alcoholism, or a safe learning environment in a training program. A good holding environment offers the security we need to engage life and encourages us to take risks in order to grow. A poor holding environment offers too few supports for the challenges life brings. This stunts growth and triggers reactive behavior. Ask yourself these questions as you plan:

  • Am I well held? What supports do I have for helping me attempt this change?
  • How big is this challenge relative to my ability to meet it?
  • What supports can I call upon to strengthen my holding environment at this time?
  • Should I scale back my goal so it can be better met, given the support I have?

2. Paying attention

In his book On Great Service, service guru Leonard Berry describes the key distinctions of leading service organizations of many types -- bookstores, plumbing companies, insurance companies, grocery stores. One of the clear common threads is that each of these leading organizations makes time to talk about service every single day. It might mean plumbers getting together every morning at 6:30 before going to their different jobs, or grocery managers providing daily huddles for part-time high school baggers. When you talk about something every single day, it sinks in. Reading about it, doing it, improving it, mentally practicing it -- all of these are ways of paying attention. Making time to pay attention each day, and nurturing the quality of this attention so that it's meaningful, guides important new behavior into its proper place.

  • How will you pay attention to the change you want to make?
  • How will your group do that together?
  • At this point in time, what type of attention -- reading, dialogue, practice -- appears most lively, meaningful, and engaging?

3. Variety, rhythm, style and go-figure

In Mind Over Machine, a book that engages the argument over the relative capabilities of people versus computers, Hubert and Stuart Dreyfus outline five stages of skill development, ranging from "novice to expert." In their research they looked closely at chess players. They found that through steadily playing the game with peers, a chess player could only reach the third level, "proficient playing." Only those players who did other things, like playing speed games and studying the masters' great matches move-by-move, advanced to master-level chess. While each of us has preferences for how we like to learn, this tells us that variety is vital to masterful performance. Read a book, try something out, take it apart, talk to someone who knows the subject, keep a journal, watch a master perform -- each of these activities enriches and accelerates our learning and progress toward successful change.

  • How do you best like to learn new things? Have you included that method in working toward this change?
  • What are some other ways to enrich and accelerate your progress?
  • As you look four to six weeks into the future, consider planning a special event -- perform something for someone, talk to or watch a great performer, or otherwise stop and look at your goal from a different perspective
  • After six weeks, what's another way to engage this change -- a new way, a new rhythm, perhaps something completely different?
  • What have been the paths of the greats in this endeavor -- the best company, a great performer?

4. The And-And dialectic

In Everyday Zen: Love and Work, Charlotte Joko Beck makes a wonderful statement to the effect of "wherever we are in life and whatever we do, the right teacher finds us."

We don't have to seek that right person -- they will emerge in our life and challenge us, perhaps in subtle ways, to grow in just the ways we need. The people with authority over us tend to be the most formidable when it comes to engaging change efforts: the project leader, the customer, the boss, the child. We might seek to overpower these individuals, or to withdraw from them, but neither strategy tends to be effective. A dialectic is the creation of a new truth or thing from contradictory forces. When faced with contradictory forces between ourselves and someone else, the "and-and dialectic" suggests that we find a third way -- one that leads us to both join in their way, and for them to join us in ours.

If you are a big-thinking gambler ("let's get married tonight!") and the other person is a step-by-step builder ("it's nice out, let's take a walk"), the "and-and dialectic" means finding a way to work with both. It may be as simple as taking turns. It may mean marking out work territories and working together in agreed-upon ways. It may include finding common ground. When an important, mutual goal is at stake, successful engagement of change is more likely when the people involved choose the "and-and" route.

  • Who do I feel up against as I attempt this goal? What is that person's "way"?
  • How can I try things their way?
  • What is my way? How can I show it?
  • How can I work with both ways, and discover the "and-and" combination that leads me forward?


There are many ways of looking at change, growth, development and learning, but I've consistently found the elements above to be a shared thread in my successes in life and work, and in lighting the path ahead.

*For more about holding environment see Robert Kegan's work The Evolving Self, cited below.

Everyday Zen: Love and Work, Charlotte Joko Beck and Steve Smith
Harper San Francisco; (March 1989); ISBN: 0060607343

The Evolving Self, Robert Kegan; Harvard Univ Pr; Reprint edition (September 1983)
ISBN: 0674272315

Mind Over Machine, Hubert and Stuart Dreyfus
Simon & Schuster (Paper); (August 2000); ISBN: 0743205510

On Great Service, Leonard Berry
Free Press; (April 1995); ISBN: 0029185556