The ancient Japanese art form and philosophy known as Kintsugi may help provide insight on how to deal with rapid and accelerating change. Roughly translated, Kintsugi means “Golden Seams” or “Golden Repair.” It is the art of broken pieces. It is built on the idea that by embracing flaws and imperfections, we can create an even stronger, more beautiful outcome. Embracing flaws is not typically what we do with our mistakes in life or at work. Lessons learned and retrospectives are outlets for this examination of our projects, but the unique opportunity for these discussions is not always embraced.

We all have had experiences that left us feeling flawed. They may have left us in a broken state, and we wanted to hide them. But the truth is we are better off putting them together to create something new and unique.

This may be a helpful concept when faced with difficult circumstances, such as the fear of failing at some new responsibility or meeting new expectations caused by changes in the workplace, or even on a personal level.

Finding creative ways to build something unique is not how many of us react to mistakes or failures. Most of us try to put those unpleasant events aside — to forget about them rather than elevating them. But through the very process of repairing broken things, or overcoming our failures, we might create something more unique, beautiful and resilient — including ourselves, thanks to what we learned and are willing to share.

Understanding Change Objection at a Root Level

If we are to help people properly navigate through change, we need a better understanding of change objection at a basic human level.

Fundamentally, a change is a shift between two stable datums, or sets of generally agreed-upon truths.

To illustrate: At the beginning of 2020, we could grab our passports and jump on a plane to travel anywhere. A few months later, air travel to many places was restricted or unavailable. Thus, we set up new patterns, processes and context to think, plan and process this new circumstance (new datum). Now suppose we experience another rapid shift, and you are expected to travel 1,000 miles and be at a client’s site full-time starting overnight. How would you feel?

Upsetting changes in a person’s life create points of collision. Therefore, the conceptual idea of change usually connotes an upset.

We Must Account for Emotions

We’ve all been there. We were doing something we liked to do and were becoming pretty good at it, then we were no longer doing that task, project or assignment. It can remind us of other life events when someone or something moved away or was taken away. Such changes can be associated with losing friends, changing schools or leaving jobs — all events that were emotional at the time.

How do we feel when our file structures are changed overnight? Or, maybe your URLs don’t work anymore? These changes may seem trivial but can be upsetting, especially if there is an association with some previous event that may have evoked a fear or anxiety response.

Changes in job duties or roles can be unsettling as well, particularly if we are forced into something we didn’t choose. This might require that we follow new processes, learn how to use new technology or move to a new work location.

When someone or something shifts their position in space, this is a change and at times a very disturbing one that can kick in over and over throughout one’s life. Thus, building moves, forced office moves, decisions to work 100% of the time in a new location — all can move into this emotional echo chamber.

Of course, most of us can relate because of our emotional experiences with COVID-related workplace changes. Recently, my group was encouraged to move from working at home back to the office, even if just one or two days per week. I went back for a day, just to get back into the flow. It wasn’t mandatory, but I was excited to reconnect. However, it was not what I expected, with only a handful of people on the entire floor the day I went in. I tend to speak a lot and began to notice my voice bouncing off windows, no doubt clearly audible over a considerable distance. I began to feel more self-conscious about possibly annoying the people who were there.

It was a reminder of how different office life has become. It was disturbing, until I began to realize it was a reflection of my past experiences. I had expected my return to office to be the same as it used to be. It was instead very different, leading to an unpleasant emotional reaction. My “normal” had become working from home, not the office. Working from the office had become a foreign experience.

Think in Terms of Semantics

One effective strategy to create an open mind toward change projects or programs is to choose words that show off the advantage they create for the end users. Perceptions of change, and the emotions that go with it, can be modified by the labels we apply.

For example, we might retitle a change program on financial reporting to: “Lose the Messy Spreadsheets.” Or perhaps: “We’re Wasting Too Much Time — Let’s Make It Stop.”

Confusion results from overuse of ambiguous change words that paint a different image in each person’s mind. The word “transformation” is vague and means something different to each person who hears it, similar to how “birthday cake,” when said, would create a mental image for you that is not necessarily the same as mine, nor other people’s.

Words either provide creativity or confusion. They matter.

The point is to be creative. People are weary. They want less work and more time for the fun part of work, so let’s help them rediscover that fun. What do they most like doing, and want to do less of? Make that the title of your initiative.

Shifting toward positive or favorable mental attitudes reflects ideas espoused by the New Thought Movement. With origins in the 19th century, the New Thought Movement affirms our essential worth as human beings, emphasizing the interactions between thought, belief and consciousness and those effects within the mind. It holds that affirmative thought and adoption of favorable mental attitudes can result in beneficial changes. This school of thought is woven into a number of self-help books, religious doctrines and philosophies. Positive psychology is also an offshoot.

Whether or not we adhere to New Thought principles and concepts, it is easy to see the value of celebrating small successes, showing appreciation and sharing triumphs.

The Kintsugi philosophy of creating beauty from brokenness is a harmonic of New Thought.

Positive experiences, emotions and interactions can build the energy toward creating the safe space we all need to navigate change. It’s about willingness to learn from mistakes and failures and the courage to try again.

 

Change strategies must be targeted to specific organizational needs. External resources can be key to success.

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Dana Houston Jackson is the lead principal change adviser at 1898 & Co., part of Burns & McDonnell. A straight shooter and advocate of new thinking, Dana prides herself in simplifying the complex in a “box-poking,” 25-year career in organizational development and change management. Some of her clients include energy, utility, technology, manufacturing and construction companies, government and academia, and nonprofits.