When my eldest son was three years old, my brother bought him a book that had been one of his own favourites when he was younger. It’s a book called Two Monsters, by David McKee and it’s about, well, two monsters.
The two monsters live on opposite sides of a mountain – one on the east side, and one on the west side. They have never met, but they can speak to each other through a hole in the mountain.
One evening, the sky is beautiful, and one monster shouts to the other through the hole,
‘Look! Isn’t it beautiful! Day is departing.’
‘Day departing?’ replies the other monster? ‘You mean, night is arriving … You twit!’
From there on, things go rapidly downhill, metaphorically and literally. The monsters trade longer and longer insults, and then they start ripping chunks of rock off the mountain and chucking them at each other. This continues all night … and all of the following day …
… until, just in time for another sunset, there is no mountain left, and the monsters meet face to face for the first time. And, with a gasp, they both realise the other was right – it IS day departing, and it IS night arriving! So the two monsters have a good giggle and sit down together in the rubble where the mountain was, and watch the sun go down.
All of my children have, in turn, for a season, loved this book. That’s due in no small part, I’m sure, to the insults – I challenge any toddler not to laugh at their mummy calling someone a soggy cornflake! – but I think there’s also a paradox at the heart of the story that ignites a small child’s imagination.
It’s a paradox that, for me, serves as a perfect metaphor for change, and our attitudes to change, and for a clear and critical choice between two very different paradigms. We have to make this choice time after time when facing change.
This is a choice that we are currently seeing played out at this particular moment in history in the starkest terms on the global political stage – Trump, Brexit, immigration, aid, climate crisis …
It’s a choice between an old paradigm which says that, when we are facing change, we should dig in, resist, hold on tight to the status quo, shout louder, increase regulation, impose more controls, minimise risk and difference, be afraid, be angry ….
…. and a new paradigm – quieter and subtler perhaps, but no less tough or revolutionary for that, which approaches change with courage – with open hands and an open mind – which welcomes, embraces, seeks to understand, transcend and include, which empowers people to create something new.
We have this choice of two paradigms in our politics.
We have it in our personal lives, whatever challenges we’re facing with the people we love most dearly.
And we have it in the context of our businesses and organisations.
Our whole dialogue around change is odd, and doesn’t serve us well. On the one hand, we talk loudly and boldly about how change is the new normal. ‘We live in VUCA times’, we say, borrowing yet another macho military acronym. Change is gonna happen – sunrise, sunset – twice a day for the rest of our lives. We’d better get used to it. We revere leaders who innovate, disrupt, move quickly …
But then when change actually happens – woah! We’re head down, suffering, enduring. We use the Kubler-Ross grief curve to explain to ourselves and each other why we feel so terrible, and the extent of our ambition shrinks to getting through, relatively unscathed and as quickly as possible, to the promised bright tomorrow, in which the IT probably still won’t work.
Now, it’s true that change is scary. Our brains make no distinction between social threats and physical ones. If something is going down that challenges your standing and sense of status, or makes you uncertain, or limits your autonomy, or seems unfair …. well, Tim from management with his ‘Transformation Plan’ might as well be a tiger chasing you down the street for all the distinction your brain makes. You’re under threat, and your brain goes to fight or flight, rendering you pretty much useless – unless Tim is savvy enough also to have a plan to involve you in creating the change; a plan which helps to reduce that sense of threat – which shows you the role you have to play, for example, and reduces uncertainty. There’s lots more we can discuss in relation to that in due course.
But it’s also true that change is good, and not just because it’s the means by which we reach that fabled bright tomorrow. Within reason, our brains like novelty. It’s interesting and inspiring to experience new things, and to learn. Led well – by which I mean by wholehearted, sleeves-up, messy human leaders, with a clear sense of purpose, and an ability to tell stories and enable others to tell theirs’ – led well, a period of change can be immensely productive and value-generative, for us as individuals, and for groups of people in teams, organisations, families, nations.
A period of change brings its own momentum, for example – it can inspire and energise us to do more, to create, to put in discretionary effort. A period of change is also an opportunity to pare back and simplify; to figure out what serves us, and to shed whatever doesn’t – bureaucracy, old habits, outdated ideas. We can learn how to be more evolutionary and agile. We can increase our confidence by virtue of taking stock of all that we’ve done so far, and by surprising ourselves with all the more we can do. And, like the two dinosaurs, we can increase our understanding of one another and the world around us, and so also increase our sense of belonging.
We sorely need to clear away the mountains that divide us, put down our rocks, and learn to sit together in that half-light of change – day departing, yes, and night arriving … but also its own beautiful thing.