Thoughts About Big Changes Vs. Little Changes

As someone who takes leadership and coaching seriously, I have been reading up on goal-setting, aspirations, and all that change stuff.

As a coach, I help others identify, clarify, plan for, and achieve goals. Throughout my careers, goals have always been important elements of my work. However, as an employee and manager, I was usually responsible for meeting someone else's goals.

So my experience was heavy on the "planning how to do it" side, but rather light on the "dream a little dream" personal side. As I focus more intentionally on the art and science of goal-setting in the context of coaching, two distinct camps seem to emerge:

Dream Big or Don't Dream At All

"All our dreams can come true, if we have the courage to pursue them."
~ Walt Disney

The idea behind thinking big is that anything is possible, with the proper will. Therefore, you ought to think in large terms when thinking about your goals. In this mindset, smaller changes are not as useful as big screen goals.

The value of dreaming big is that your goals and the actions you take to reach those goals are more impactful and life-changing than otherwise. If we do not dream beyond what we have, we will only have what is already here, and that is not enough.

A danger here is that thinking big without paying attention to the smaller components of change may not provide the foundation for true change.

Dream Big But Celebrate Small

As Justice Sotomayor so eloqently writes, large change is often comprised of multiple smaller actions, which deserve recognition and celebration:

"You cannot value dreams according to the odds of their coming true. Their real value is in stirring within us the will to aspire. The proper measure of success is not how much you've closed the distance to some far-off goal, but the quality of what you've done today."

For example, some folks celebrate every graduation of a family member, whether from kindergarten or graduate school. While the relative value of the accomplishments are not equal, the value of the celebration is equally important, when viewed as steps acccomplished along the way to a larger goal

In all educational examples, the best goals are not degrees, diplomas, or certificates, but enhanced thinking skills and more effective abilities to be a productive person.

A danger here is getting so wrapped up in the small victories that we lose focus on the larger goal.

More Thinking Around Goals

Maybe we need to think in terms of both rather than either/or. A currently popular and useful concept in organizational change is around the idea of Adaptive Change
Versus Technical Change
, popularized by Ron Heifetz< and based on an early article by Heifetz & Donald Laurie.  I think of these as tactical versus strategic changes.

Tactical Changes

Technical changes are not earthshaking upheaval, but smaller fixes and tweaks that may leave us thinking we have really worked hard, changed many things, yet have not engaged fully in transformational change.

They remind me somewhat of Bob's Small Baby Steps in the classic film What About Bob, a tale of change and growth. Tactical changes are not critical in and of themselves, but they can result in change on a less epic scale.

A value of technical change is that it provides momentum and creates the foundation for adaptive change. Well-chosen small changes create the basis for a culture of continual change.

A danger is when we make a few tweaks, which cause a little discomfort and some resistance. This makes us stop and fret about further change, instead of moving forward.  In some cases, we actually make a few tweaks and think we have already done the heavy lifting of real change. The result is either inertia or a false sense that we have done what we can.

Strategic Changes

Adaptive change is deep cultural change, where the person and the organization shift in profound, ongoing, and permanent ways to better meets needs, achieve goals, and create a more collaborative work environment.

Adaptive change is hard, creates intense emotional and psychological dynamics with which we must deal, and does not easily or quickly produce the results we want much of the time.  Adaptive change is epic change and it is not easy.

A value of adaptive change is that this is deep bone change, which offers the opportunity for long-term growth for both a person and an organization. If you engage in adaptive change, you know beyond any doubt that things are different in significant ways.

A danger is that we will not stay the course, while navigating the uncomfortable period as we move from what we knew to what we are becoming. Since adaptive change is hard, forces work against the forward movement, through fear, doubt, and similar demotivators.

Of course, real change is not a trip or a destination; it's a way of being. We never finish changing, and both technical and adaptive changes are part of the culture in which we must learn to live. Adaptive change should prepare us to continue to change on a regular, permanent basis.

As a coach, I need to be sensitive to both types of change, in order to help keep the client identify which type of change they are planning and doing, and encouraging them to change deeper and longer through questions and every once in a while, remind them to throw a little party to celebrate.

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