I’ve been thinking quite a lot about change over the weekend.
There are three reasons for this. First, because last week during my annual appraisal the inevitable question about futures emerged. Second, I’ve been spending a little more time this weekend in the garden filling out the patio with geraniums and seeing how modest change can have a significant impact on how things look (and my mood). And thirdly, because while I’ve been potting, Simon has been embarking on his aggressive bi-monthly clear-out of the wardrobe and cupboards.
First, the appraisals. Newsflash: I look forward to them. Positive feedback is always pleasant (though not entirely productive) to receive and development feedback always presents itself as an opportunity for future focus. But, when someone else quite justifiably asks you whether you’d given any thought to your development needs for the future, those of us thoughtful sensitive types who process through thoughts by articulating them out loud, start biting our bottom lip. The question “Where next?” should always come with a warning: don’t read too much into it. Even if the warning is given, I normally overlook and assume I’m in receipt of a coded message: is someone telling me something needs to change?
“I’ve always found change exciting,” said a colleague rather dismissively when I explained all of this to him. “I don’t see what your problem with it is.”
As it happens, I too find change invigorating. But, there’s a backstory. Over the past ten years at the BBC there have been moments when I’ve experienced that tightening of the stomach – a feeling that normally signals something is about to change (or is already in the process of changing) of which I have no control whatsoever. Do I mean control? No, probably not. The word ‘control’ has such negative connotations. It’s probably more accurate to say that I need to feel as though I’m a significant part of that change – a part of implementing it rather than responding to it – which is most important.
That tightening of the stomach is based on an experience further back in time when as a kid I remember all too well the stress caused by the possibility that the family business fall apart following my Dad’s extended hospitalisation following a serious accident. There was an overwhelming sense that the very thing I had grown up with – and the very thing our family depended on – was at risk of being taken away by people who had been airlifted in and didn’t understand what impact their actions might have on us. It all seemed incredibly unfair. No one would listen. It seemed to me, at ten years old, as though we were helpless.
There was redemption. Through hard work and ingenuity, we won through and triumphed. Good triumphed over evil. Things were tough and the experience has cast a shadow over us all to a greater or lesser extent, but we did triumph. Yay, etc.
Was the triumph worth it? The answer to that question depends on who you speak to. For me – and most of our family – the answer would be a resounding yes. Things after the triumph (back in 1984) were different compared to how they had been before, of course, but the central requirement – hanging on to our livelihood – was achieved.
But those emotionally detached from it (and life in general) may take a different view. For those individuals, the fact that the business is still going isn’t necessarily aa sign of success. No 80 year old should still be working as hard as my Dad does now. Business is only successful if it’s in a state of growth (isn’t it?). Profit marks out business and that if there’s no profit, there’s failure.*
Actually, as it happens, that more disconnected view was mine in the late 90s. My thought then was that there was no discernible need for my parents to continue working now that I had graduated and I had a steady job. They could and should stop working and do what most other people over 65 do and retire. That way they’d get the life they worked so hard for so long to live and I could stop worrying about them and their health.
I realise now that was a rather at best a rather unsophisticated view, and at worst a self-centred one. I see today what benefits their day-to-day work brings them. It isn’t an interruption to their lives or a burden, but something which, in fact, keeps them feeling alive. It gives them purpose. For all their apparent moaning about it (we all do it – moaning comes easily), their work brings them joy.
So I’m thinking about the appraisal I had last week and the question about the future and the comment made by the colleague who says that change is (and should be exciting), when I’m out in the garden planting some more geraniums.
It’s been a long project trying to make the patio more colourful, but it’s one I feel is slowly paying off. Set against the bushy choisya, rambling rose and the smoke bush, the pots of vibrant whites, pinks and reds make the view out of the kitchen a bit of a treat. The view from the kitchen window is an escape from the boring monotony of my own often destructive thought processes.
That joyous view has come about, I think to myself as the last plant gets pushed down into the compost, as a result of small incremental changes made to the patio. There have been iterative rearrangements of old pots and hanging baskets resulting in something accidental but otherwise pleasing. This combined with an uncharacteristic patience waiting for perennials I planted last year to start sprouting again, brings a smile to my face. It now looks like somewhere I’d happily sit in on long hot Sunday afternoons. Job done.
The effect of this kind of change – slow iterative changes based on instinct and experience – is palpable. I now look on the higgedly-piggedly-ness of the patio and beam with pride. It’s not perfect, by any means – it compares poorly to my neighbour Alan’s vibrant garden. But the sight of our garden brings me joy. I am incredibly proud of it.
I’m writing this at my laptop looking out of the back-door and the newest collection of plantingout on the patio. Upstairs Simon bags up the clothes we’ve both agreed can be sent to the charity shop, recycled or thrown away. I generally hate the process of ‘wardrobe rationalisation’. It always comes around far quicker than I would like and when it does it can result in some tense exchanges between the two of us.
Simon will generally aim to throw more away than I want to. That’s why we’ve come to agree that an initial pile of clothes will be selected by him which I can then ‘comply’ myself. What the process often succeeds in doing is reintroducing me to clothes I’d forgotten about for two or three months. I can still fit into far more of the clothes than Simon thinks I can’t. So, whilst there might still be a considerable amount which can be thrown out, I nearly always ended up being reminded of the items which still have a wearable life ahead of them.
What’s important here is the need to be involved in the process. We both know that what I don’t like is having his decisions on what I can and can’t wear anymore imposed upon me. I respect what he wants to achieve, and he respects the way in which we both need to work together in order to achieve that goal. He proposes, I debate and we both arrive at a compromise. It’s worked well for nearly twenty years. It’s a great model.
And it’s there I’m left with a deeper understanding of change and what it means to me.
What I appreciate is the extent to which both organisationally and personally we are all too quick to pedal cliches about the subject.
For example, that people are either resistant to or embrace change; that change is ongoing – that nothing stays the same; that all change should be radical otherwise it’s not going to have any effect; that effective and beneficial change should be imposed not agreed upon. These are black and white views which do little to help an individual’s understanding of the need for change. These black and white views also disempower the individual, who is left believing that there is nothing to be done about it and that it will be generally a bad thing.
The question is not do we embrace it or resist change? The question is to what extent we have a role in deciding what that change actually will be. Change doesn’t need to be radical in order to have an effect, nor does it need to be strategised. Change can be small. It can be incremental. And in most cases, in my experience at least, the most effective change is iterative. Change needs to acknowledge and appreciate nuance. It shouldn’t rely solely on big metrics, bold colours, empty-looking wardrobes or a beautiful looking garden worthy of an RHS award. In fact, if anything, we should all make a point of deliberately ignoring those rather clumsy measures of success.
We all of us want things to improve. Of course we do, we’re human beings. At the same time, some of us want to ensure that everything of value is acknowledged, just in case the most important of things get inadvertently gets thrown out and forgotten about. And that can only happen if we’re all agents of change – if we’re all given an opportunity to be a part of the change process.
* I’m not saying there’s no profit, by the way. I have no idea if there is or isn’t.