Everything I needed to know about Change Management, I learned in rehab.

For 12 years, from my teens through late 20’s, I was a drug addict. Not the “keeping up appearances but I have a terrible secret” kind, but a full-blown, walking trainwreck.

In time, I traversed the entire spectrum of that world – from expensive hotels and briefcases full of cash to sleeping behind dumpsters in the streets of Las Vegas. I bounced in and out of treatment centers, 12 step meetings, jails and all sorts of attempts to “pull myself together.” Nothing worked, no matter how grim my circumstances or how strong my desire to escape the confines of my addiction.

Eventually though, I came to a bleak point of no return. I was 29. I had stabilized for just long enough to get married and make a decent little start at a “normal” life, and then after a short time found myself plunging back into the abyss. Now everything I had built up was crumbling around me yet again in what seemed like just another example of the hopelessness of my condition, which I assumed came down to a lack moral fortitude and will power.

But somehow, despite having faced more severe circumstances in the past, something turned out to be different this time. This was more than another set of external complications that I had to navigate and surpass – this was an internal collapse. Something in me shifted in such a way that I had no choice but to pay attention, and nothing has been the same since.

I’ve had many years to reflect on this shift, what led up to it, and why it stuck when all previous efforts had failed. While I’m not a particularly superstitious person, there’s a certain amount of intangible grace to it all. It’s difficult to explain the cosmic lottery that presented a moment of clarity to allow me to move out from under a shadow that many others couldn’t. But while I can’t truly account for that first moment of intervention, I can clearly see the path and structure that unfolded afterward and led to a durable transformation that brought me to where I now stand.

That’s the part that I want to talk about today. Not the drama of my personal journey, but the nature of awakening, strategy, and consistent effort in facilitating change in the individual, which is mirrored in social, organizational and cultural change throughout the human experience.

Types of Change

Circumstances aside, there are different kinds of change and different approaches to each. The school of thought I’ve been trained in identifies change as being of three primary types:

  • Developmental – building on the current state to increase capability or capacity
  • Transitional – moving from the current state to a new, clearly defined destination
  • Transformational – moving from current state to a new reality that is not yet entirely clear, and that will evolve during the course of the change.

As you can likely tell from even these basic descriptions, the challenges, stakes and level of complexity get significantly greater as you encounter each respective type of change. Transformational change is particularly intricate as it often requires degrees of developmental and transitional change to support it.

Looking at the types of change as they relate to my personal journey as well as the parallels I have seen in my work with organizations, there are clear distinctions as well as significant commonalities in approaching their respective solutions.

The Wake-Up Call

All change requires some kind of wake-up call – if there’s no catalyst, why would you invest the time and effort to change? The nature of the awakening generally relates pretty directly to the kind of change.

A developmental need could show up as, “our game is good, but we need to improve in a certain area.” You’re not necessarily trying to redefine yourself, but you need to gain some skills; maybe it’s conducting conflict management workshops for your management teams or creating efficiencies in operations. It’s about getting better at what you already do.

Transitional change is slightly more complicated, but again your core identity stays intact. “We’re going to continue doing what we do, but we need to change a process/tool/strategy from this to that in order to fix a problem and remain effective.”

The wake-up call for transformational change is where things start to get interesting. The very nature of transformation is in many ways about survival. The call to transform is usually either a “change or die” scenario, or a challenge that requires a new way of being in order to pursue future opportunities. Simply getting better at what you already know isn’t enough, nor is a moderate modification of systems and process.

My awakening was about survival in a very real way. To continue down the path I was on could only end in disaster. To change trajectory required more than skills and information – I could get a degree in addiction and recovery and still not find my way out of the trap. I needed a fundamental redesign of the mindset, behaviors, culture and systems by which I had been living. It wouldn’t be enough to think differently but leave my actions unchanged. Nor could I take new actions without a clear and compelling new vision and expect any degree of success.

The same is true of your organizational transformation. If you are facing a change that reaches down into the very core of your business, that requires more than a surface-level tune-up to get you to the new state, then you’ll need to address each of these areas in your change effort. Transformation requires new vision, new capacities, new strategies and new culture. Trying to address any one component in isolation only leads back to square one after a lot of frustration and wasted effort.

The Case For Change

Once the wake-up call has occurred, the first requirement for transformation is that the full depth of that awakening be made clear and undeniable. Whether the need is identified by an executive team, a committee, or an isolated group within the company, it must be defined, refined, and communicated in the most powerful way possible in order to prove the overall case for change. This is often a critical stumbling block of major change initiatives – if the case for change is only truly strong for a select group, it becomes difficult if not impossible to recruit the level of effort required of the rest of the organization to tackle the full scope of a transformation.

On my journey, the case for change was agonizingly clear but the path forward was full of fear and apprehension. I didn’t have a model to follow to know what transformation would look like, and while there were still those in my life that wished me well, there wasn’t much in the way of trust and optimism. Engaging around the case for change was a constant effort, as each new day brought more confusion, more discomfort and, for a while, more pain. I faced self-doubt and plenty of external skepticism, as those who had seen me try and fail in the past kept an arm’s-length relationship with hope during my early period of change.

The misgivings of my network (i.e. the market/the organization) were often discouraging, but I kept coming back to the primary dilemma: If I succeeded, the market would eventually respond. If I failed, market sentiment would be irrelevant anyway because I’d be out of business. That is to say, if I couldn’t turn my life around I’d end up dead or in prison regardless of what anyone else thought about me, so I had better ignore the naysayers and the nagging voice of doubt and stay focused on the task at hand. The same is true for you and your organizational transformation. When in doubt, the case for change is your “true north.”

The “why” should be made vivid for as many people as possible at every level of the organization. This won’t be easy, and it may not be comfortable. Change is not an easy sell, and uncertainty is even more terrifying. To look into the eyes of your people and tell them “the old way must die, and the new way is not yet clear,” takes a lot of courage, and a lot of relationship equity. If you’re already starting with a culture of low trust, selling the case for change will be more difficult. It will also be that much more crucial to pull it off.

Refining your case for change:

  • What is driving the change?
  • What type of change is it?
  • What is the scope of the change?
  • What is the degree of urgency?

There are, of course, many factors to consider. These represent just a few of the fundamental questions you’ll want to answer when building out your initial case. What others might you need to address in your particular change effort?

Capacity and Engagement

Much like my own experience, getting people to engage on a journey toward a destination that isn’t entirely clear from the outset takes skill, patience, and a deeply strategic process to hold it all together. You will have to overcome the residual cultural fatigue of your past failed change efforts (and you most certainly have them). You will need to analyze and plan for the impact of both your change process and your desired outcome.

Change strategy requires broad vision and thorough consideration:

  • What will it mean to really change?
  • What specific impacts will the change make on various stakeholder groups?
  • What other change initiatives are already running throughout the organization?
  • How will you align them?
  • How will the work required for transformation impact the day to day work of your business?
  • What additional changes will be triggered by your primary change project?
  • What will you need to do differently to ensure the success of your transformation?
  • Are you actually ready and does the organization have the capacity to tackle the change?
  • Are you even prepared to lead it?
  • What will life be like in the new state?
  • What happens when something in the change process goes wrong and you have to change course?

Even without knowing the challenges you may encounter or adjustments you’ll have to make ahead of time, these and many other questions should be part of your planning process. Change is a process and can be “managed,” but there is an aspect of craft to it as well. Executing a true transformation takes more than a tidy spreadsheet of timelines and dependencies. Building the muscles for change and having a clearly defined process to address the way that decisions will be made as things unfold are aspects that should begin as soon as possible, not left until a critical moment to figure out on the fly. By laying out your tools and consciously thinking through how they will be used in advance, you’ll be able to employ them skillfully and with greater effect when the time comes.

Don’t Go It Alone

If I had to rate one element of strategy as most important, I might say it’s this: never go into uncharted territory alone. My journey was something I had never experienced before. I could hardly figure out how I ended up so hopelessly lost in the first place let alone what to do to change or what life would look like if I were to succeed. I had tried and failed to lead myself to shore more times than I could count. Finally, after that last, undeniable wake-up call, I decided to take a different approach. I took on a reputable process with a proven track record, and I enlisted the guidance of an experienced mentor to help me navigate the transformation.

Each individual and organization must ultimately establish ownership of their process to sustain change, but seeking counsel from someone with experience both navigating and guiding others through the phases of development, transition and transformation is a critical component of success. It’s also just smart business. Why stumble blindly along trying to reinvent the wheel when a process already exists and support is available to help you learn it?

Whether it be an internal change officer or an external consultant, the person leading your change should be someone with the expertise to guide the process, the capacity to handle the workload, and perhaps most importantly, permission to tell you the unvarnished truth when you need to hear it most. Change can be messy business – there will be corrections and new issues surfaced as you go along. If you want to succeed you’ll need to be prepared to address them as they are presented to you, not just brush them aside for the sake of meeting a budget or a deadline. Your change leader is the person you task with keeping you grounded in that reality.

Stages of Transformation

So what comes next? You’ve thought through the impacts and variables of your transformation, taken the time to develop a robust, conscious strategy that links and aligns your various change projects, and established a framework for keeping things on the rails as you move forward. Now it’s just a matter of pulling the trigger and watching everything fall smoothly into place, right? Well… maybe not exactly.

As I progressed through my path of personal growth, I didn’t exactly go straight from broken and afraid to stable and functional. I was trying new things, learning new skills, and I made mistakes in the process. I encountered many stages of development, each with important lessons to fuel my progress.

In the beginning I just wanted to escape the catastrophe of my circumstances. I was more focused on leaving the old than on building the new. Pain was the primary motivator. As time went on, my perspective started to shift and a vision began to take shape. I was often frustrated by slow progress or the small setbacks I encountered as I was working to build a new life, but I never stopped working and I never turned back, even when the way forward was unclear. I stuck to the process and leaned on my guide when things got tough.

My motivation changed from pain to hope once I had built a foundation of consistency and progress. The old way was far enough behind that my first impulse was no longer to look backward when I was facing new challenges. The picture of what was possible started to come into focus, and with that clarity came a greater capacity to integrate the lessons of my early growth and achieve greater results tackling new challenges. I now had a framework and new skills that I could employ. These had taken me through a major transformation process, and that experience became fuel for growth in future stages of my evolution.

Transformation is like that.

You’ll be able to implement the initial phases of work and get things moving, and if you’ve done well with preparation things may be fairly smooth. But once you leave the familiar shores of today, you will inevitably encounter unexpected challenges that will need attention on the way to tomorrow. These represent critical opportunities to course correct and expand your capacity for learning and change, and if you’ve done the work to prepare and are well supported, these can be powerful opportunities to engage your people and develop a learning culture.

The early stages of change can be precarious. They are more about calculated experimentation and perseverance than they are about mastery. As you begin to demonstrate that you are leaving the old reality behind, you’ll encounter resistance. There will be complaints and maybe even some voices asking to go back to the way things used to be. It will take time for people and the organization as a whole to adopt new skills and behaviors. But as the change effort begins to mature, it will find a rhythm and momentum for integration. Lessons learned and challenges encountered can be readily applied to the strategic evolution of the process, with new opportunities often emerging as a result.

Celebrate, and Keep Going

Organizational change is a big topic, and this isn’t a textbook. There is plenty more to say and I’m sure I’m already pushing the limits of attention span for a blog post, but there is one last aspect that I don’t want to leave out of the picture.

I remember a moment early on in my recovery when I landed a full-time job at a local health food store. It certainly wasn’t the culmination of my life’s purpose, but it was a major step forward from the three part-time jobs I’d been juggling up to that point. I let myself enjoy the feeling of progress and pride in the rewards of my diligence. I reflected on where I had been and how I had changed. I probably even bought myself a pint of ice cream to celebrate. Then I showed up to my new job the next day and worked my ass off just like I had done for all the months leading up to that moment.

The road to change holds many milestones. Some are big, like launching a rebranding campaign or executing a multi-site systems change. Some are smaller, like completing a project that paves the way for the next phase of your plan or promoting a change leader into a higher level of the organization in order to lead your initiative. These events, and especially the finalized implementation of your overall change, should be not just acknowledged but celebrated in some way. Take the time to honor the effort and learning that led to your change. Give people an opportunity to feel connected to the work and proud to be a part of it. Reflect on what you’ve learned, talk about it and make it real. Then take that reflection and put it to work.

I’m not suggesting you throw a party every time someone checks an item off a to-do list, but a key part of the learning process is recognizing achievement, taking stock of the new reality, and deciding what aspects of that progress can be applied to future growth. The complexity of change deserves recognition. The most valuable change education your company can receive won’t come from a book or a lecture or a workshop. It will come from hard won experience and the integration of lessons learned along the way.

When you’re climbing a mountain, you can still stop to measure your progress and admire the view from the lesser summits on your way to the top.

When you’re changing your life, you can pause a moment to appreciate the fact that you’re on new ground before you keep moving forward.

When you’re transforming your organization, you can honor the work that got you started and the effort it took to begin the process of change as you reach for new horizons.

And then you get right back to work, because the next challenge is just around the corner.


*For the record, I didn’t actually learn all of this in rehab. I’ve had many brilliant and generous teachers over the years who have given me more wisdom than I could have asked for. My personal experience gave me a foundation, and my teachers and mentors gave me a structure. If not for them I’d probably still be putting boxes on shelves in a grocery store somewhere.

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Also published on Medium.