Loving this story about successfully changing a conversation. It highlights the hidden power of language in how we think about the world. On the face of it, this conversation is about both saving a library and increasing taxes. It should be possible for people to hold both of those concepts in their head at the same time when discussing the topic. The reality though, is that by focusing on only one aspect of it (taxes) the other aspect (saving a library) can be occluded, even made invisible.
One of the key principles of Appreciative Inquiry is that the first question asked in any change is fateful; the question you ask, the issues you focus on and the stories you generate fundamentally shape the direction of conversation and the change that will follow.
Language and thought are more tightly coupled than we often think, and choosing a focus for conversation, and specific words to bring that conversation to life are far more important in change than we often give them credit for.
“We will begin the next great chapter in the American story with three words that will ring from coast to coast; from sea to shining sea: Yes We Can”
Urgent! Urgent! Everyone be urgent! Our iceberg is melting, because our platform is burning. And even if that’s not technically true, we will tell you that anyway, and find data to support that argument, because good change management starts with a sense of urgency.
Sound familiar? Conventional wisdom has stated that any change effort needs to start with urgency: From Lewin’s “unmelting” phase (which Schein has expanded to include “disconfirming the current model”); to Kotter’s stage model – beginning with (you guessed it) stage 1: Create a sense of urgency. Steven Elop – Nokia’s CEO offers a textbook example of this approach – even starting his employee communication with the fable of the burning platform.
But is it really the right approach for every situation? Urgency gets things done – no doubt about that – and jumping off a platform into icy waters can be a sensible approach if your life is in imminent danger. But if the platform isn’t actually on fire, then people are going to see through the lie sooner or later.
There’s an unsaid assumption in this approach that in change, people need to be forced to do things that they don’t want to do. Kotter himself has started addressing this by talking about the importance of winning hearts as well as minds. It goes without saying that only exaggerating the negative aspects of what has gone before is going to win few hearts.
As an alternative – could co-creating a positive vision of the future bring about a more sustainable sense of urgency? David Cooperrider suggests that hope and a dream of a better future – a “burning vision” can catalyse action just as effectively. Moreover, there’s no “change fatigue” and a lot less resistance with hope as a foundation. Nobody has exploited that fact better in recent history than Barack Obama. And while there was no shortage of fuel for him to light a burning platform, his choice to focus on hope, and utilise relentlessly positive imagery led to one of the most impressive election campaigns in history.