The Litany Against Fear
“I must not fear.
Fear is the mind-killer.
Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.
I will face my fear.
I will permit it to pass over me and through me.
And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path.
Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”
— Frank Herbert’s Dune, 1965
Last Christmas, I got my hands on a republished copy of the Dune board game. Like many of you, I was introduced to Dune in university. My parents had an original paperback of Dune that I grabbed to read when I was back for awhile, house-sitting. “The Litany Against Fear” chanted by the Bene Gesserit – a women-led religious order in the Dune series – made a deep impact, remaining with me ever since.
My intellectual focus during the past six years has been the creation and diffusion of innovation within the Canadian media industry. In this series of articles, I’ve shared various models and philosophies, from experiential and service design to strategic foresight (futurism). Any industry stakeholder can use them to rethink media services and effectively change the way audiences experience broadcast communication.
[Rhonda (my editor) adds: I guarantee you that few of the organizations your readers represent are rethinking the lunch schedule, never mind their media services and products. Why? Fear, “the mind-killer,” is like amber: the aromatic resin of caution lulls people and organizations into stillness then hardens around them, planting artifacts to be unearthed eons later, exactly as they once were.]
Products and services are successfully redesigned only by concentrating the efforts of leaders, team members and clients. A courageous organizational or team leader is not enough; boards, team members and clients must all also be willing. Preferably eager. Without energetic input from all stakeholder groups, nothing happens – no change, no innovation. (The same is true for financing, building and implementing products and services.)
Diffusion or propagation of well-executed ideas (AKA innovation) would be easy were humans 100% compliant, even robotic, in following directions. However, as Byron Sharp illustrates in How Brands Grow, people aren’t rational beings, they – we – are emotional ones. Fear is arguably the strongest, stickiest, most deceptive and influential emotion.
The Politics of Innovation
Placed in charge of innovation at a politically-charged organization, my team and I were tasked by leadership with designing future market research methods and tools. To my surprise at the time, many people within the organization were strongly averse to the ideas we presented, even refused to consider them. We assured them repeatedly that the ideas being presented were still rough. With the thumbs-up to proceed, we thought these ideas would be honed and polished into viable recommendations through many iterative rounds with subject matter experts. To no avail – even the nascent ideas were so threatening, these individuals shut and locked them out.
Perhaps I would understand the resistance to the team’s ideas by viewing it through the lens of the organization’s political culture. Politics is about fear, competition for resources, status, position and power. For some, it also follows philosophical proclivities.
Some colleagues discredited my ideas by asserting that I was too inexperienced and/or uneducated to develop worthwhile ideas for the organization. In other words, the ideas could not be trusted because I had not earned my place their way. Did I take this criticism personally? You bet I did. Was the criticism about me? Not at all. Rather, it was a strategy [– resin being dripped –] to preserve the status quo. (Even understanding why they were being lobbed at me, these rebuffs hurt; knowing didn’t much ease sting of rejection.)
Granted, I was green, but with the help of kind-hearted and intelligent colleagues and clients, I ramped up quickly. It didn’t matter how much I learned, what accolades I got, or that other reputable international organizations were adopting my ideas. Four years in, I was still the “he’s not good enough” guy.
In order to advance my team’s ideas into projects, I was coached to circumvent, even ignore some of the naysayers. With others, I was also advised to adapt my approach, bending it to the naysayers’ agendas and tailoring it to their personalities. This is called lobbying. I was being told to employ political suasion rather than share rational observations and conclusions. As a result, each innovation project began with a list of gatekeepers, influencers and decision-makers to lobby. I learned to strategize the communication of each idea’s value proposition rather than what I originally thought made sense: simply, clearly articulating it.
I had the good fortune to join the StatsRadio crew. I applied all the industry knowledge and innovation and political skill I’d gained at the lumbering giant to help this start-up export its services to English-Canadian and US broadcasters. In other words, I lobbied radio industry influencers and gatekeepers, with the strategic goal of being granted an audience with the decision-makers. This worked better than the straightforward, rational approach of my newbie days, but something was still awry. Politics did not fully provide the solution to dissolving innovation resistance.
Change vs Transition
In December, Destination Human’s Angie Dairou introduced me to William Bridges’s book, Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes. The book’s basic thesis is that change is what happens to us externally while transitions are what happen inside of us. When external changes occur, internally we experience them in three distinct phases, Death, a Neutral Zone and a New Beginning, that can happen in tandem or concurrently.
Transitions begin with the need to grieve that which is being replaced: an existing job, status, process, colleague, office, city, parent, spouse or pet. The person in this phase of transition goes through Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. (For those unfamiliar with Kübler-Ross’s seminal work, these don’t happen in sequence, and they don’t get ticked off once they’re done and gone.)
After Death and before New Beginning is the Neutral Zone, a creative, unsettling phase when the person in transition begins their psychological adjustment to the external change. Anybody who’s ever moved between jobs, experienced a reorganization or retired knows this feeling all too well. Recently, I had to say goodbye to my dog Mimi, my best friend of 11 years. Since I work from home, my adjustment to the fact of her absence has been excruciating. Mimi, after all, was responsible for ensuring that I took regular breaks and lived an active lifestyle. Besides grieving her, I also needed to address the new reality of life without her: it’s unsettling, yet creative – how will I fill the time dedicated to her (morning, lunch and evening walks) and how will I deal with the loss of her companionship?
The strongest emotion many people feel in contemplating death is fear. If a proposed change kills your status, your power or your role within an organization, fear floods in to protect you from danger. That fear can be strong enough to convert your resistance to change into anger, bullying and sometimes even, violence.
Not all changes spark strong or negatively-charged transitions. Finding $100 dollars on the sidewalk, meeting a new love interest, being recruited by an executive search firm: these are all exciting, positive changes. Saying goodbye to an empty wallet? Never a sad thing. Saying goodbye to loneliness, also never bad. Saying goodbye to the freedoms of singledom and to full use of your dresser? This might induce some grief and unsettled creativity. Being recruited into a better position in a new organization? You may grieve existing contacts with friendly colleagues, interest in projects, and your former routines. Still, this change is affirming of your worth, for your betterment, and of your choosing: positive feelings will outweigh grief.
That said, for changes to be successfully effected, transitions must be well managed. In his follow-up book, Managing Transitions, Bridges offers a sample plan along with case studies to help organizations create transition plans as part of change management.
Bridges’s construct, (external) change vs. (internal) transition, provides the capstone for my research on the diffusion of innovation. Recognizing now how powerful fear is in provoking irrational behavior, I see that I had not found a way to rethink it or found a winning strategy for addressing it. Prior to incorporating his thesis into my understanding, I had considered the impact of personality traits, social systems, marketing approaches and political behaviour on the diffusion of innovation. I missed the emotional complexities of internal transition in response to external changes.
While I was writing this piece, a reader’s feedback on the Rethinking Media article focused on combatting groupthink came in. Agreeing that groupthink was endemic in our industry (as well as many others), the reader stated that people feared thinking differently or taking risks for fear of reprisal. True, and to this column’s point. When rolling out innovative ideas, please create safe opportunities within your organization for people, who will have to transition in response to the changes, to speak freely. Set aside time for them to explore the ideas, express and contemplate their reactions, and begin to transition with your guidance and support.
Innovation need not be a high-risk, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants endeavour. There are many models and methods that are well researched and available at low to no cost. Some make little to no impact on existing processes and structures. Choosing a well-suited method or set of methods and rolling out innovations with the support of a knowledgeable facilitator and a strong transition plan will radically reduce the petrifying effect of fear.
To all my fellow innovators, be bold, be brave, face your fear and take calculated risks.
To talk more about successful change and transitions, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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