I Choose “C”

I rediscovered an album I hadn’t listened to for a very long time. “Everything That Happens Will Happen Today” is a collaboration between David Byrne (Talking Heads) and Brian Eno (Roxy Music). I was listening to collaborations because that was the theme of much of our work on the trip to Steelcase.

In the song “Life is Long”, Byrne’s lyrics are accompanied by Eno’s masterful composition:

Now I can say, those three little words
And every day, I’m dreaming a world
Soul to soul, a kiss and a sigh
Holding back, the waters outside.
Life is long, if you give it away
So stay, don’t go, cause I’m fading away
Soul to soul, between you and me
Chain me down, but I am still free

I played that song for a friend and they commented, “This is a brutally sad song.” Which was surprising to me, because I see it as an acknowledgment of temporality but also a celebration of the connections we are capable of. It occurred to me that this is a little like the Fermi paradox. Fermi’s paradox, named after physicist Enrico Fermi, is the apparent contradiction between the lack of evidence and high probability estimates for the existence of extraterrestrial civilizations.

One solution to the Fermi paradox is a “filter.” In this solution, many extraterrestrial lifeforms have developed, but there is a limiting filter that they all fail to pass through and therefore never become advanced enough to reach out into space. If earth has already passed this filter, we are golden, but if the filter is in our future, we are toast. Where we are, related to some event, makes a huge difference in how we view the event.

For me, the song above reminds me that while this world does contain a lot of chains, I am still free. For me, a very significant filter event of my life is in the past. I made it through, and it has changed how I see the circumstances around me. For some people, that filter is still in front of them. The thought of passing through is “brutally sad.” for them. It is filled with loss and fear.

When an event is in front of us in time, like a career shift, a physical move or some other significant life change, we do a little simple math in our hearts (trust me, your heart can do math):

K x V x D > PC

If this equation is true, we are more willing to accept the change. The more the left exceeds the right, the more we will lean into the change.

K is for knowledge. We must have some understanding of what is about to happen, or we will not be able to embrace it. Knowledge is about data. If you are leading someone, or a group, through change, it is critical that you give them enough information about what is going to happen and why. It is not necessary to have all the answers, but asking people to change without any information will not end well.

V is for vision. We want to believe that the bits and pieces of our lives add up to something. Vision is about heart. Knowing and accepting a vision that transcends our individuality is a key factor in being able to face uncertainty, difficulty and fear. As change leaders we should constantly retell the narrative of the vision. The vision must be compelling and strategically achievable for people to believe.

D is for discomfort. It is hard to change when we are comfortable where we are. Discomfort is about pain. One of the top reasons people move is they have become uncomfortable with their space (they need more or less). Sometimes the discomfort is obvious, but sometimes we have to remind ourselves that things are not so perfect where we are. Change leaders help people see the daily difficulties in the present system to promote interest in changing to a better one.

The product of these three must be greater than PC.

PC is for perceived cost. This is what we imagine the change will cost us in time, resources, discomfort, fear, loss, or anything else we can think up. The difficulty with our perception is it is variable and unpredictable. What one person perceives as significant might be minor to another. As leaders, we must spend the time it takes to know our team well enough to find the perceived costs that are holding people back and work with them.

In order to help people accept and embrace change we must increase the value (or amount) of knowledge, vision and discomfort, while lowering the perceived cost. If math isn’t your thing, you need to understand that if any of the items on the left are zero, the equation is untrue no matter how big the other three are, so some attention must be given to each.

The same friend I mentioned above also asked me to picture a house with warm lighting and a fire place with people gathered around it. “Do you want to be inside or outside the house?” they asked. I said neither. The question is meant to be a choice between relationship and freedom. I don’t believe in binary situations. It’s kind of like Captain Kirk and The Kobayashi Maru test. For the non-Trek among us (bless their hearts) this test puts a young cadet in a no-win scenario. Captain Kirk reprogrammed the test so that it could be won. Later he says, “I don’t believe in the no-win scenario.”

Given a choice between 1 and 2, I choose “C”. We can always reframe the situation.

We don’t have to give up nearly as much as we perceive we will when the “filter” or event is in front of us. We simply need to reimagine the future using our experience of all the events that have occurred, and in retrospect are different than we thought they would be, to help us lower the perceived cost of changing. I can be free inside the house and I can find community outside it. If I find myself needing to change, the new is only as scary as I let it be.

Kimray is changing, but it always has been changing. The comfort and stability of the present is often overstated, and the fear we have of the future is often unfounded. Our role as change leaders is to help our team find their own knowledge, vision and discomfort so they can lean into the changes that will come. Life is long and the future is waiting.