Catalyst for change – grieving the loss of what we thought we knew

There are certain events and people who make you see things more clearly. These are catalysts for change, change agents, breaths of fresh air, or taking off the rose-colored glasses/beer goggles. As Agile coaches that is our job, to show teams that what they have been doing is not the only way of doing it. That there are other ways to see things. But what about the actual change? And what about the process that teams have to go through to get to the same vantage point? How do we address the grief cycle they need to go through?

Even if change is the best thing and there are better ways of doing things, you have to allow people to go through the change process in their own way. They have to grieve the change, the loss of what they know. The realization of what they didn’t know. Realizing they are wrong, or that something else is more right. The feeling that no one understands. It’s different for everyone. The steps are different, the processing is different, the internalization, the confusion, the potential hurt, the adjustment to a new reality – and it takes time.

Now I’m not a patient person. I’m not necessarily an overly optimistic or cheerful person, either. I’m more pensive, skeptical, realistic. So change processes are interesting for me. As are watching others deal with them. Some lean on others, some push away, others just exist, zombie-like. How do you recognize and adjust to different change processes? There’s not one good answer.

You need to be observant and read the room/people. I did a poor job at this once early in my career (and probably many times later). My team was going through a hand off of a significant project we had just completed to another team. I was fairly new to the team and saw it as a great opportunity to help lead the transition and knowledge transfer. I was excited (which is rare). What I failed to notice was the rest of the team, who had been there far longer than I, was crushed. They were worried for their jobs, their skills, their daily work. It was all changing after they had put their heart and soul into this project for many years. I missed it and was not being empathetic, in fact, I was probably being very disrespectful.

Agile transformations are no different. In many cases, we’re ripping a rug out from underneath everyone and forcing them to get up, lick their wounds, and see what we want them to see – immediately. We expect change and while we build in time for adjustment and learning, we don’t often address the grief and adjustment in the change process. We just work on figuring out how to convert the “non-believers.” Many people just fake it so we leave them alone and then later regress because of it.

To really bring people along, we need to lean on others to help us understand how they need to go through the change process. We need to be observant and adjust our strategies and messages to get through to everyone. They need to know it’s ok that it’s scary and we will be there to support them through it. We know it will take time and that’s ok too. We need to be patient, empathetic, and supportive. It’s ok to say it’s HARD. It’s ok to say we need help. In fact, that’s what makes me a relatable coach, is addressing those exact points.

And perhaps the hardest thing to discuss is when mistakes are made. Things do not go as planned. People don’t feel heard, understood, or empathized with – they will lash out or withdraw. And you may have lost them. The failures come with the successes and we need to work to re-build the trust that was lost, or that maybe we never had in the first place. And if we are pushed away, we need to give space, even if that in and of itself is an eye-opening catalyst to how we saw those people and processes before.

19. July 2016 by Natalie Warnert
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