Not all change is created equal.
The first step in effectively creating change of any kind is to understand that change happens at many different levels – from a single moment or thought, up to an historical change in social structure. If you don’t understand the level of change you are working at, you may select the wrong approach for dealing with that change. In this post I identify four levels of change and give some examples that will be helpful in deciding what level you need to work at.
The micro-personal level of change happens moment-to-moment. It is all about a thought, single action, or event in our daily lives. Change at this level means interrupting a pattern just once. This can be a habit of thought or action, like negative thinking or smoking. It can also be a repeated sequence of events, like a yellow light always being followed by a red light.
Personal change is the level that I address when I want to “change my life.” Most often when we talk about personal change, we’re talking about changing a habit. Building on the previous examples, quitting smoking for any length of time is a personal change. Replacing negative thoughts with positive thoughts is another personal change. Generally people want to change their lives on a long-term basis, but personal change can also be temporary. One common example is pregnant women who give up pain relievers during their pregnancies, but reach for an Advil the first time their baby has a crying fit!
At the organizational level, planned change is usually addressed through change management initiatives. This seems to be the organizational equivalent of “I want to change my life.” Of course, change can happen to organizations in many more ways. It seems that more often organizations are faced with unplanned change such as shifting markets, staff turnover, or technology changes. In those situations, organizations can either react through a planned initiative, or ignore the change and hope it goes away.
Over time, all communities and societies will experience massive amounts of change. Societies are the ultimate open systems and are subject to a constant inflow and outflow of people and ideas. This is a good thing, because too much stability in a society creates stagnation. The “Dark Ages” in Europe provide one of the best examples of an insular society hostile to innovation. However, when societies change too quickly, the chaos that follows can lead to a lot of unhappiness. I imagine that American Indian societies went through a long period of chaos and cultural upheaval during the European migration to North America.
Modern governments generally attempt to balance the pace of societal change through public policy. For example, the United States controls attempts to control the number of immigrants allowed to enter the country every year. Social norms are also a means to slowing change. The stronger a social norm is in a current population, the slower the change pendulum will swing toward its opposite.
In any situation requiring change, I suggest that you consider the level of change that is appropriate. While this isn’t always obvious – for example, you may have to change your mindset about your job instead of changing the company you work at – some reflection will lead you in a starting direction.