By Julie Benezet:
My husband and I had traveled 32 hours through four airports and too many waiting rooms. We arrived home exhausted, reeking of the coffee we had dumped in our laps on flight segment number three and needing a long sleep in our own bed. It felt great to be back.
Then reality intervened.
We returned to a country that had changed almost overnight. When we flew to New Zealand in early March, Seattle had just become ground zero of the COVID-19 virus. Ten days later when the U.S. State Department advised us to go home, “immediately,” we came back to an entire nation under siege. On March 19, 2020, California Governor Gavin Newsom issued a statewide stay indoors order. By March 30th, at least 42 states, three counties, nine cities, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico had a stay at home directive in place.
Watching the world transform so quickly into a different place led me to think about uncertainty, the opportunity for change, and what it takes to get there.
The uncertainty of not knowing where things are going, much less what to do, can cause great anxiety. It drives our desire to find something to make things better. Yet, often when we need change the most, it is the hardest thing to achieve.
Ironically, uncertainty also gives us an unexpected opportunity look at our lives differently while we figure out a plan for our future. To achieve our plan, however, we need to understand how the rhythm of change works.
Changing one’s mind
When we shifted from office to home, we moved from endless in-person meetings, hall conversations and last-minute requests into a very different tempo. Without the normal cascade of office to-do’s pouring in from every direction, the pattern of constant activity changed, replaced by periodic gaps of unscheduled time.
During the past month, I’ve heard many people say they don’t mind the change of pace. For the first time in a long while, they feel freed from the wearisome office routine of ceaseless human interactions and a steady stream of to-dos. Instead, they fill their stay at home days interacting with family, baking bread and binge-watching TV series that have been languishing on the “watchlist.”
They also spend time sitting quietly, entering a different mental space.
The quiet time sets them on a new journey. Rather than the usual repertoire of work strategies—new project, organizational restructuring, rebranding or other generative exercises—they find themselves looking elsewhere . . . inward. It’s a place the demands of work have prevented them from visiting. What do they need to understand better, what matters and what do they do with the disconnects?
Whatever the questions, without the usual business day distractions, their thinking veers in different directions. Finally, they have time to hone their ideas and start making plans.
Then they encounter an unexpected challenge: the rhythm of change. Whatever business or personal change they want to make won’t happen instantly, which can be deeply frustrating. There are so many steps to put in motion, including convincing the people whose support they’ll need to go forward, with no guarantee they’ll get it or get it any time soon.
Embracing the Rhythm of Change
Hearing people’s stories, I reflected on what I have learned from years of traveling on the bumpy road to achieving change. Three lessons came to mind:
1. Change does not happen on a predictable schedule. When we hatch an idea to start something new or solve a pressing issue, we want to know how it’s going to turn out, sooner rather than later. However, change has its own timing, taking place when ideas, people and resources manage to come together.
Whether it’s a new product or an important intervention, change does not follow a certain rhythm or path. It might take a long time to germinate or land immediately. Its unpredictability can be exciting, or in the case of COVID-19 where so little is known about a possible vaccine, frightening. Either way, we cannot control its speed of delivery. At best, we can influence it by the questions we ask and the work we do based on what we learn.
2. No matter what the challenge, learning enough about a situation to take action includes stretches of powerlessness. It confronts us with an unsettling period of inactivity while events unfold to reveal a point of re-entry. In the meantime, it is a test of patience. Colleagues require time to mull over your proposal before sharing their opinions or buying in. Research does not produce answers overnight. Before adopting your plan, a friend stubbornly insists on trying her own options, even bad ones already proven to be futile.
While people work through their processes, you wait, watch and learn.
3. Waiting does not mean lack of resolve, but rather having the wisdom to allow things to evolve. Paying attention to what information emerges will inform when and what further questions to ask. Then you will know what to do.
Discovering a vaccine to defeat COVID-19 will have its own rhythm, albeit on a large scale. Hard as that is to accept, for those of us not in the government or medical research, there is regrettably little we currently can do to alter its course.
Meanwhile we can use our quiet time to develop thoughtful plans to reopen our businesses, encourage our employees and customers to return, or pass the baton to others so that we can move on to something else. We won’t know exactly when or how we will be able to execute on our ideas in the post COVID-19 world, at least for the near term. However, our best course is to maintain a patient, open mind that flexes and adjusts our plans as the future reveals itself.
Patience and Progress
As we hear in the courageous daily briefings of state governors battling with COVID-19, eventually we will emerge from this awful period. This I do believe. Moreover, if we are smart, we will learn the lessons needed to prepare us the next pandemic. It will take a long time, but it would be a crucial outcome.
As anyone who knows me would tell you, patience is not my long suit. Nevertheless, harnessing a patient attitude is essential for realizing change of any kind or magnitude, especially in times such as these. It lends itself to a healthier frame of mind for navigating the road of unknowns ahead toward a better future.
In the meantime, please stay well.