Change Comes from the Edges

Last night, my husband and I re-watched the second episode of Ken Burn’s Mark Twain. Gosh I am a big fan of Mark Twain. He always has exactly the right word for everything.

One of his quotes that the show used in this episode is the one that titles this post: Change Comes from the Edges. In it, Twain was talking about how change rarely comes because Congress legislates it. Instead, it comes from the people changing their behaviors. The example the show used was how Huckleberry Finn’s portrayal of Jim – as a human being with feelings and fears and hopes, and a deep unabating love of his family, someone relatable to Huck, deserving of Huck’s compassion – shifted American perceptions of African Americans from the edges. That the reading of his (still considered subversive in many backward communities) book, by everyday people, people who weren’t attracted to “literature” and were suckered in by Twain’s storytelling and humor, and opened them up to a new idea about people who they had fixed ideas about before. When the center shifted, far after, it shifted because the edges had already thrown it off balance.

In my mind, I picture a band of asteroids, held together by gravity into a huge sphere, gently spinning. Shifting the asteroid in the middle of this sphere is hard – it’s surrounded by all these others, there isn’t much place to go. But if you can loosen up the edges where there’s room and the gravity isn’t as tight, maybe nudge them a little bit one way or the other, you can throw off the balance, and eventually the whole mass will shift.

This can be true on a personal level. Some of us have the urge to change something huge in our lives. But the idea of making that happen seems overwhelming – we don’t know where to start, where we want to end up, we just know we want to change. If we nibble away at the edges, changing little things in our lives, we can sometimes free up the ability to change in a larger way. Invite change into your life, by changing little things, and change will come into your life.

This is also true in organizational change. When the power at the center decides to hand down an edict Thou Shalt Greet Customers, for example, it’s not enough to shift the mass. Gravity is holding them too tightly spinning in their usual orbit. But if you can get to the individual people at the edges, get them to start to change, eventually you can throw the spinning off-balance and shift the whole mass.

So how do you do this? By reaching one person at a time. Storytelling works well for this. Stories from the leader, about why this change will make the company stronger. Early adopters talking about how they made it work. Public recognition of people who made the change. Reinforcing stories that help individuals see how it is possible. Conversion stories by skeptics who made the leap.

Storytelling is powerful because it gets inside you, it captures your emotions. Emotions motivate. Logic is all well and good, but it can’t compete with a powerful emotion.

It’s important to pick the right emotion. Some leaders lack the power to persuade and fall back on fear. Fear is a powerful emotion but it doesn’t motivate people to act. In fact, many studies – and there are many out there now – find that fear causes people to become more conservative, to hang on tightly to what they already believe and what they already have. If you want people to change, telling them that they have to change or else, will not get the lasting results that you want. I will never forget encountering an employee – our employee – who stood frozen in the middle of the store. When I asked why, he said he had been told that he couldn’t do the work he had always done, work that had seemed comforting to him because he knew it so well, and he “didn’t know” how to do the new work we wanted him to do. It turns out he was on a PDP (performance development plan, often a death-knell) for not doing the new work. But he “couldn’t” do it, so he stood, literally rooted in one spot, frozen.

His manager, a caring, compassionate person who was trying to create a better, stronger, more lasting store, was very frustrated with him. I could understand that.

And I still ask myself, how could we have reached this young man? What tools rested dustily in our toolbox that could have helped him overcome his fear and change his behavior? And how big an advocate could he have been if we had helped him cross that icy river?

Could he have been the tipping point at the edge that would shift the center toward the future we wanted to create?

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