8 ways to deal with change (based on the habits of successful changemakers)

When Dennis Whittle started working at The World Bank, his team was divided into two office spaces. Just to have a conversation, he and his colleagues would have to get up and walk down a winding hallway. One day, Dennis noticed a door between the two rooms with a table in front of it. He asked a coworker, “Hey, why don’t we move the table and open the door, so it’d be easier for all of us to work with the other room?” His coworker told him the door was locked and they weren’t allowed to open it. Dennis didn’t question him any further.

Working late one night when no one else was around, Dennis decided to move the table and try the doorknob. It wasn’t locked. It actually opened easily. He felt like King Arthur pulling Excalibur from the stone. Before he left, Dennis propped the door open. The next morning, he found his coworkers milling around excitedly. “The door has finally been opened by building engineers!” one said.

Communication and collaboration noticeably improved, as did the team’s output. This left a lasting impression on Dennis, who began trying lots of other “doorknobs” at The World Bank. Many were, indeed, “locked,” but more than he expected were open. “Trying the doorknob isn’t a magical solution,” says Dennis, “but it’s a technique and metaphor I keep coming back to that helps groups and myself get unstuck.”

Dennis loves change. But most of us probably relate more to his coworkers. The familiar, even if it’s not fully to our liking, is preferable to the unknown. So when change is thrust upon us — our company is sold or a new principal starts at our kids’ school — we squirm nervously, unsure of what it means for us. That’s when we can take a page from folks like Dennis, whose change-making habits can guide us the next time an uninvited circumstance knocks on our door.

  1. Think big and act small.
    “There are two steps you need to take when you want to make a change,” says André Ferreira, founder and CEO of VuAir. “First, you have to know what you want to do, and have a grand vision. The bigger, the better because you can always cut it down later on, but you don’t want to start limiting yourself from the beginning. The next step is to ask yourself, What are the small steps I need to take to get there? Often times, people feel like they need to make big, drastic changes to make an impact. But bigger change gets done from a snowballing of smaller, progressive changes.”
    How to apply it: Usually, change doesn’t happen all at once, which gives us time to get our bearings. Instead of anticipating the whole big, scary adjustment, we can focus just on the initial, smaller ones. Likely, we’ll find a way to take it in stride, putting us in a better frame of mind for the next revision.
  2. Collaborate.
    “Change is rarely brought about by a single person thinking about it in a room,” says Dennis Whittle, founder of GlobalGiving and leadership group member of Ashoka Changemakers. “Get together with a group of people, and ask, ‘What if…?’ Talk out your ideas amongst each other. Then follow-up with a ‘Why not…?’ Why not try? It’s a cycle of reflection and implementation carried out by a diverse team of people that brings about successful change.”
    How to apply it: Change can feel isolating, and that makes it seem worse. When we’re feeling out of sorts about a change, simply talking it through with someone can help us process the situation and not feel so alone. Try using Unstuck’s “Call in the Cavalry” tool to help plan and pull together a list of people to turn to for different kinds of advice and support.  (You can download the free Unstuck iPad app here.)
  3. Constantly challenge the status quo.
    “Society tends toward standardization, but change requires us to wake up and say, Wait, why are we doing it this way? Does this make sense?” says Dennis Whittle. “I like to stop meetings sometimes to just ask these questions. We have to interrupt the flow of orthodoxy and how we do things so that we can do what’s best, not just what’s good enough.”
    How to apply it: Sometimes we need to accept changes even if we don’t think they’re necessarily fair or for the better. But not always. Just as Dennis Whittle questions the standard way of doing things, we can question changes. What’s the purpose of this change? Is it sensible? Is there a better way? This turning of the tables puts a bit of control in our corner and gives us some say-so, even if we don’t get our way.
  4. Get uncomfortable.
    “For any change that is worthwhile, there will always be resistance,” says Dave Faulkner, director of Education Changemakers. “I believe that real and meaningful change is tough. It takes time, effort, persistence, resilience, and most importantly, action. And while you may fail when you try to change things, you’re certain to be a failure if you never try at all.”
    How to apply it: Hanging outside our comfort zone isn’t always a bad thing. When we’re in a place of uncertainty, we’re pushed into problem-solving mode. We see things from a different perspective. And that allows us to consider possibilities that couldn’t happen when we’re feeling safe and sound. (Read“Possibilities beyond the comfort zone” for a story about making the best of a life-altering situation.)
  5. Change on purpose.
    “I like making change happen because it works and because it has an important purpose. Change for its own sake is relatively pointless,” says Jim Fruchterman, founder and CEO of Benetech, which develops technology to solve unmet social needs, such as literacy, human rights, and environmental conservation. “For me, change is hope for a better planet. [My] job is necessarily to effect change that actually makes things better.”
    How to apply it: When change is pushed on us, look for the purpose behind it. Does it compromise who we are and what we stand for? If not, it’s probably not as bad as it first seemed. If it does, well, then it might be time to make our own changes (see Habits #3 and #4).
  6. Don’t wait to get started.
    “I believe necessary change often doesn’t occur because people are too afraid and/or don’t have the tools to put their ideas into action,” says Dave Faulkner. “Changemakers don’t just talk about change. They put it into action and always make the conscious effort to ‘get started.’ They don’t wait for all the resources or the stars to be aligned. They get started and are willing to improve along the way. One of our mantras at Education Changemakers is ‘Don’t worry, be crappy.’ This doesn’t mean you should do a bad job, but that you should get started and improve as you go, or you’ll never change anything.”
    How to apply it: When we complain about change, it’s really a stall tactic. And the longer we grouse or make fun of it, the harder it will become to adapt to the inevitable. Sure, we all need a minute or two to think things through, but then we’ll be better off if we start coming to terms, one way or the other, with our new reality (see Habits #1 and
  7. Compete with yourself.
    Terri Winston, founder of Women’s Audio Mission, is motivated by the knowledge that she can always outdo herself. “Improvement is change. We will be better than we were before. How can that not be exciting?” she says. “We’re always looking for ways to make our curriculum, delivery methods, and our recording studio better, and in the long term, extraordinary.”
    How to apply it: Admit it, we often only see how change makes our lives worse. This is when realistic optimism can help us adapt. Start looking for the positives when facing an unexpected change. Even if it’s a tiny reward, focus on it. Keep track of it. Make it grow.
  8. Accept and learn from failure.
    “The hardest part about change at times is maintaining enthusiasm even in the face of failure,” says Dennis Whittle. “It’s like baseball. Even the best players strike out many, many times. But you have to keep training and keep swinging — even if you’re going to fail two-thirds of the time, because the one-third of the time you do make it, you’ll realize, is so worth it.”
    How to apply it: The first time a change knocks us down, it can seem devastating. The next, it may throw us for a loop again, but we’ve been there, survived that. We learn that yes, we are resilient, we do adjust. This experience helps build our confidence that we can handle change when it comes our way. (For more on this, read Dr. Meg Jay’s tips on how to get back in the game.)

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Meet the Changemakers in this story.




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