Adapting to change is a survival skill in the twenty first century. But thriving with transitions is a superpower that will help you stand out from the crowd. In fact, it is that one skill of our times that will help you succeed and live the life you want.
The difference between adapting to change and thriving with transitions is subtle, but it makes all the difference. It is the difference between whether you reluctantly survive a change when it is imposed on you, or whether you can proactively orchestrate change to your own advantage, thrive through that transition and then flourish in the new setting. Until it is time to orchestrate the next transition.
Thriving with transitions has three distinct steps, each requiring a different mindset, tools and approach:
- A) Orchestrate the change you want
- B) Navigate any transition with ease
- C) Flourish at steady state
This article is about the first of these three steps -(A) orchestrating change.
There is an old saying which goes, “Stop singing while your voice is still good.” This means that you need to step off something not when the going gets bad, but when it is still good. People will still remember you at your peak, your reputation is intact, and your skills and confidence are in top form. Now, more than ever before, this advice is spot on.
Every change needs to start with a change story, essentially the narrative that explains the burning need for change. Let’s face it, change is hard, if the need for change is not sufficiently high, we as humans will shy away from it.
Let’s take a look why, in the 2020s, we need to orchestrate our own changes.
- The pace of change in the world is scorching. It is hard for our human brains to keep up the with the speed and extent of change.
- The change is pervasive. Even if you were to decide that you do not want to be affected by the change, it is impossible because the world is so interconnected. What affects one affects all. Eventually. And sooner than you would expect.
- The type of change we face has no precedents. There are no real models or pathways we can rely on to navigate the change.
- If you don’t make it happen yourself, it will happen to you.
Let’s take an example. For generations, we have relied on a three-phase approach to life: childhood, adulthood and old age. And each phase had its own things to do – you play and learn in childhood, you work and earn in adulthood, and you retire and relax (and live off your pension) in your old age. This three-phase approach is completely outdated. You would imagine that a social change of such enormous impact would unfold over generations. That sure would have been nice, it would have helped us catch up with the change. But social and cultural change almost always trails behind technological change. And as the pace of technological change has picked up exponentially, the rest of the facets of change needed for humans to adapt has been woefully left behind. If you consider this massive shift in social structures and phases, how many of us are proactively planning for this? We all know of this change intellectually, but most of us do not do anything about it partly because we don’t quite know what to do with it. We do not quite know how to orchestrate the right kind of change, and thrive in it. And we almost certainly lack the confidence and the social and cultural backing to take the risk that entails a change.
How do most of us respond to such a situation? Wait. We wait until the change is forced on upon us, until it is too late to design our own change and we are too caught up in the change itself to see the big picture.
So let’s assume you are convinced about the need to bring about change as a matter of survival, which it is. But I want you to think about transitions as a way to thrive. That’s the polarity of the world we live in at play, you can choose to upset about it or you can work it to your advantage. If you choose to stay as-is, you do not survive. If you make the right change, you don’t just survive, but you thrive. Middle-grounds may have been the norm a few decades ago, but increasingly it is one or the other extreme.
Orchestrating a change in your own life is the equivalent of a PIVOT in a startup or business world – a shift in the strategic direction of the business, ahead of the curve. Almost all successful companies have gone through strategic pivots. It’s no different from an individual career or life path. And many companies which did not pivot, or did it too late, have found themselves bankrupt.
So what how do you go about orchestrating change? Here is a six-step process:
1. Baseline Assessment
What you need here is a clear-eyed view of your current situation vis a vis the external conditions – past, current and future.
In order to do this, examine your life and work situation – What industry do you work in? What are your skill sets, how transferable are they to new roles and sectors? What is your lifestyle like, do you have sufficient buffer financially (and emotionally) to last a transition if it were imposed on you? How strong is your network (not just whether they like you but is it diverse enough to help you out when you are in trouble or will you all get into trouble simultaneously)?
Transpose it against the social and cultural trends that you see – What are your peers up to? Are they investing in learning new skills? Are the jobs in your industry declining or increasing? Do you see investments, interest in the sector from the younger generation, etc.?
Actively check for optimism bias and correct for this bias, as needed.
This should give you a good assessment of where you are. If you feel like you are in the perfect spot and that you can grow and thrive in your current context, with little risk of disruption, go for it. Stay where you are. What you need is a strategy for step (C), flourishing in steady state.
2. Define your desired destination
This step is critical. You need to have a reasonably good sense of where you want to go. This should be a natural next step after you have assessed your current state and your external context.
Say you are a business analyst. When you were in university, this was an excellent career to shoot for. The information economy was booming, data was growing, and the initial paychecks validated that this was a lucrative profession. Now, the world has changed – routine business analysis has become just that, routine. It is part and parcel of every job, there are plug-and-play tools and dashboards which will do most of the number-crunching, and everyone is expected to do their own analyses, not rely on highly paid professionals. The more sophisticated analyses are typically handled by data scientists, well-versed in AI/ML techniques, perhaps not your cup of tea. So what do you do?
You look at your skill-sets, your passions, external contexts…and say, you decide you want to a film maker! Ok, that was unexpected. But guess what, that’s what you want to do, and you remember your youth dabbling in film making. No judgment. If that’s what you want, that’s what you want. But now, define it, detail it. What sort of films will you make? Who will you work with? How would you learn the skills to go from amateur to professional? How will you break into the field? If you can find a satisfactory answer to such questions, then define clearly what the end goal is. Paint a vivid picture.
3. Chart out the journey
It may be unrealistic to go from business analyst to film maker in one big step. Not impossible, but hard.
The most successful transitions I have seen have involved multiple steps. People rarely step off of a long-time career, and instantly find their next big calling. The number of intermediate steps is directly proportional to the distance between your current and desired destination. But don’t fret. It is also more fun and rewarding. Just like a wonderful wandering through a lush forest, rather than a straight drive through one.
To the extent possible, map out the steps.
4. Create your red thread narrative
This is an important one, and often requires a little imagination. In my own career, I have moved from the financial sector to consulting to technology sector to being a creator – the red thread through all of this has been innovation, being at the cutting-edge. The red thread may not be obvious at first, but it is always there. That red thread, if well defined, is the coherence of your personality. The authenticity of who you truly are, often expressed in different forms but tied together by your own interests and talents.
First explain to yourself what your red thread is, and then employ your best story telling skills and start telling others.
5. Go forth and venture out
The step before the last – you must start talking to people. It’s time to use your network. Typically, not your first or even your second level connections – because very likely, they are in similar fields and similar contexts as you are. But ask them for help to connect you to people they may know. Join interest groups, events, do what it takes to go out and tell your story. With passion.
6. Make the change
This last step is hard to describe in generic terms because it is unique for each individual. If your destination is a new role in an organization, this is where you converge on your wide networking and outreach of step (E) and focus your efforts on a single company or job opportunity. If your destination is an independent life as a solopreneur, this is where you make your business case for yourself and take the plunge. If you want to start your own business, you start developing your MVP, you write your pitch, build a team or at least find a partner or two, and you get started.
Whatever this step may look like for you, the important thing is – make the change.
The road from intention to action is strewn with well-meaning souls who lost the courage to act. If you want to make it to the other side, you have got to act.
That’s it. Simple, isn’t it? Nothing about this is as simple as that. But that’s exactly why you need a simple approach, so that you can fill it with the complexity of the emotional rollercoaster (both the highs and lows) that any transition will entail. If you make it through the six steps, ie. you have already orchestrated the change you want, that fits your own life goals and strategy at this phase in your life – congratulations. Pat yourself on the back and prepare for the next step, step (B) – to thrive in transition.
- The 100-year life. This book came to me, I was running down the corridor at our office one day, when there were a pile of books on the floor – apparently the Research (R&I) team at McKinsey Amsterdam was clearing out old books, they were left outside for anyone to take their pick, and this was the book on top of the pile. In between grabbing a coffee between two meetings, I picked this one up, not quite knowing what I was getting. It sat on my shelf for many years, until I read it one day. And it changed my life. And I am not exaggerating here.
- The New Long Life. Since I read the first book, I try and read all books and articles by Lynda Gratton. This didn’t impact me as much as (1) did, probably because I was already familiar with the concepts, and it was more of a validation of my own thoughts. But then, if you are thinking of picking up one book, this one is more updated. It has a similar message – except that instead of the longevity challenge, it looks at all the many reasons (especially technological progress) why we should change the way we approach life.
- Thinking fast and slow. This is another book that had a significant impact on me. It may not have changed my life, but I applied some changes to the way I think after reading this book. Changing the way you think is perhaps the biggest change you can make in your life, so maybe it did change my life after all. Kahneman discusses many of our cognitive biases, including the optimism bias mention in the article.