“What we call chaos is just patterns we haven’t recognized. What we call random is just patterns we can’t decipher. What we can’t understand we call nonsense. What we can’t read we call gibberish.” ~Chuck Palahniuk
How do we make sense out of the often extremely complicated and confusing dynamics that influence the outcomes of our change initiatives? And once we understand what’s going on, how do we help our sponsors (and, of course, agents and targets) grasp what is unfolding and choose the best course of action, given the present circumstances?
We could use simplistic explanations, but those don’t describe the depth of the situation. Too often, we get lost in the convoluted intricacies of the change and offer help that is more baffling than enlightening. Instead, what we must find, as Matthew Mays says, is “elegance on the other side of complexity.”
We need a set of lenses through which we can view the most perplexing implementation dynamics to find some level of clarity. (We’ll never have all the answers, but if we don’t have more than our clients do, we are baggage, and not a guide on their journey). Practicing our craft without using lenses to expose the issues, pitfalls, and opportunities hidden below the surface would leave us with only good intentions, hope, and luck in our tool kit.
With the proper lenses, we will be able to observe both the mindset that is being applied to an initiative, and the behaviors that are driven by that mindset. These patterns (mindset and behaviors) help us understand the order beneath the confusion.
There are patterns of success as well as patterns of failure. They all are invisible to the untrained eye, and so typically go unnoticed by most people. Lenses function much like a pair of prescription glasses: They allow the correct patterns to come into focus and open up a completely different range of possible interpretations and actions.
The influence of these patterns is powerful, and requires that we understand them to provide value to our clients. If we were to deny the relationship between smoking and lung cancer, we would still suffer the consequences. In the same way, if we ignore the patterns of change, a sound business solution may be ravaged by the predictable implications of resistance.
The right lenses reveal all kinds of concealed patterns about the way people function. A relationship has its ebb and flow of intimacy; the stock market fluctuates according to cyclical economic and psychological forces, a corporation’s culture has a rhythm at which it moves through its work. The importance of lenses and patterns is not unique to the implementation of change. In fact, one way to find successful people in any endeavor is to look for the ones who see the forces in play that others don’t.
We “own” lenses, but not patterns
There are many lens “frameworks” available but they all describe the same mindset and behavior patterns that emerge during transformational shifts. Conner Partners has developed a change methodology filled with lenses and related guidance, as has John Kotter, David Nadler, Bill Bridges, Linda and Dean Anderson, Prosci, most of the larger consulting firms (Accenture, KPMG, IBM, etc.), numerous graduate schools, and countless others. In addition, many organizations have developed methodologies for their exclusive use. These are typically comprised of a combination of other frameworks along with some original thinking that has been forged into an implementation approach unique to a particular enterprise. Although many of us lay claim to a proprietary set of lenses, none of us can assert that we own the patterns our lenses reveal.
Lenses are to professional change facilitators what a stethoscope, thermometer, and sphygmomanometer (blood pressure gauge) are to a physician—foundational tools for practicing our craft. With a proper set of lenses, we can see the hidden patterns that channel the flow of change. Copyrighted lenses (approaches, techniques, nomenclature, etc.) are important, but we need to keep them in perspective. They are nothing more than a set of conceptual tools used to see and interpret what is happening within the patterns, where the real work of change implementation is accomplished.
Patterns are the underlying, meta-level dynamics of change. As such, they are indigenous to our species, evolving through the ages as humans struggled to adjust to unfamiliar circumstances. Our ancestors, by trial and error, gradually formed what are now engrained neuron pathways and deep intuitive tendencies associated with how we respond to significant changes in our lives. Through years of research and careful observation, various practitioners uncovered these patterns. However, the patterns themselves don’t belong to any one person or group any more than someone can hold the rights to how we breathe. A consulting firm or a group of internal practitioners can develop a unique way of recognizing a pattern and even possess proprietary language for how to describe it, but the pattern itself is inherent to the human experience.
 Matthew E. May, In Pursuit of Elegance: Why the Best Ideas Have Something Missing (New York: Broadway Books, 2009)