How different people handle change

zen meditationAs a Product Manager, you are required to deal with all parts of the company, from marketing to development to finance to operations to the executive team; you need to be able to work with all of them. Furthermore, you are often an agent of change in the organization. You need to sift through massive amounts of information, find the relevant bits, assemble them, synthesize, and make an argument for changes. In fact, if you’re not changing something at your company today, just what are you doing?

It’s worthwhile, then, to think a little bit about change and the ways that different people handle change. A lot has been written on this topic and I do not pretend to offer an exhaustive or even a properly distilled treatment on it. But I do have some suggestions. This whole issue came up for me tonight in a totally unrelated context, but one where the issue was just so clearly visible, almost a microcosm of situations I’ve faced dozens of times in work and social environments.

A little story then.

When I lived in the SF bay area, I used to attend an East/West meditation evening at the Mercy Center in Burlingame. Normally I would go for Sushi afterwards, and if you get the chance, you must try Sakae on Park Road in Burlingame just across from the Apple Store. And after a Zen meditation session, one should take in a little sushi. But I digress.

kyosakuTonight as I am visiting the bay area on vacation, I attended another meditation session. After the meditation, the teacher, Father Greg Mayers SJ, introduced a new aid to meditation that he will be using at the upcoming Zen Sesshin in November. The aid was called a kyosaku, a finely crafted wooden stick that is used in Zen meditation. One of the attendants walks around, and when the meditating person invites the kyosaku, the attendant smacks the meditator on specific pressure points between the shoulder and the neck on the upper back. Each side gets two smacks. The smacks are not painful. Rather, because of the construction of the kyosaku, the technique used, and the pressure points used, the smacks help to clarify the mind and also help release certain muscles that can become sore and tight during long sitting meditation sesshins.

Why is this relevant? Well, after the teacher had his student demonstrate the technique on him, he began to describe the purpose of it. The reaction from the room of meditators was quite fascinating:

  • One woman began by saying that she was very offended by the presence of the stick in the peaceful meditation room. It reminded her of the stick that nuns used to use to punish catholic school kids. She said that she would not attend the retreat if that stick was to be used.
  • Another chimed in that she agreed. She said that the symbol of a person hitting another, regardless of whether it was helpful or hurtful, the symbol itself was simply intolerable.
  • The teacher welcomed the comments. He reaffirmed though that the kyosaku was going to be used at the Zen Sesshin, not in the regular meditations, but it would be used on that weekend. It was a liberating aid to meditation, and that it would only be offered to those who requested it, and that no harm would come to anyone.
  • One person reflected on her experience of receiving the kyosaku unexpectedly during a Sesshin in Toronto. She said that although she was unaware of what she was receiving, it was a tremendously clarifying aid to her meditation, and that she was glad to have received it. She said that there was no pain involved, on the contrary, it relieved some muscle tension.
  • Others suggested that perhaps another method should be used, such as gentle touch.
  • Later in the discussion, others chimed in.
    • One person said that he had been coming to these sessions for several years and had never heard of the kyosaku. He did not like the idea of changing anything.
    • Another said that he had been on a Zen path for five years, had never heard of the kyosaku, but after the explanation, he was opened to the idea. Initially he might have thought it negative, but was now open to it.

I was quite amazed by all of these reactions, and my own reaction. Initially I was very intrigued by this instrument and I found the idea of such a clarifying aid to be quite exciting. As I saw it demonstrated, I was even more intrigued. I was hoping they would call for volunteers right there!

When the discussion got underway, I found myself quite stirred by it. I felt angry, but was probably just quite upset that such a promising aid was dismissed without understanding. I perceived that fear and people with stuck, fixed ideas, were trying to shut down something that could be quite beneficial. I expressed this to the group. I also suggested that these feelings of fear could be seeds of further meditation, and that perhaps the very fear they were experiencing was itself a teacher for them. They weren’t buying it, but I did hear some positive feedback about that idea after the discussion.

Why have I spent so much time describing this situation? And how is this relevant to you as a product manager? Different people have different attitudes to change. You need to learn how to read peoples’ styles and do your best to adapt to their style. If you can’t adapt, you won’t get very far with those people. If those people hold crucial power or are responsible for crucial activities, you’ll be left with big holes in any plan you hatch.

How can you adapt? I have certainly hit my own pitfalls and have failed to adapt in many situations. In some situations I’ve managed to work with others with very different styles. Here are some things I’ve learned, and I’m interested to hear from you about your own experiences, especially links to articles that would be helpful. We will repost them in our article list.

OK, so here are my ideas:

  1. Relationships are important. If you develop relationships with people, they will have a larger context with you, and you will have the ability to approach them even when you are blocked on a particular issue. If you are only dealing with a person with a very different style and you have no relationship, you’re going to have a very hard time getting anywhere. This means that you need to take time to get to know people and really care about them. You can’t fake this, it has to be real. I have worked with people very different than me but have also worked hard to find the things about them that makes them effective and even likable, and try to notice when that comes through. I try to tell them about it and share my positive thoughts about them, with them.
  2. Figure out what kind of information people will accept as decision-making criteria. Some people need data, others need personal connection, others need to talk things out. Whatever they need, you need to try to furnish it. If a discussion is what a person needs, spend time with them, preferably over a meal. If they like data, provide the data. A lot of people need to understand how the change will affect them, particularly if their own position will change or be threatened by something you want to implement. Work with them to find a solution, or flag the issue for HR and upper management. Ask HR to work with you on the issue.
  3. Focus on defining the problem first, and gaining agreement on the problem to be solved. This is 80% of the battle. If people agree with you on the problem definition, on what is wrong with the current state of affairs, they are much more likely to be open to solving it. They also need to believe that the problem you describe is relevant and significant; it can’t just exist, because there are a lot of problems and we can only fix some of them. They need to know why the problem matters to the company and to them personally.
    Some people need to be involved in problem definition, and you may need to redefine the problem if someone provides information that might change the problem definition. In any case, a robust, believable, complete, and true problem statement needs to be agreed on before any change will be made.
  4. Once the problem is defined, try to get people involved in creating their part of the solution. This is tricky because some people aren’t able to generate solutions, and some simply don’t have time or are not interested. These people need to be provided with a menu of options or even a very specific set of directions. Ask the question “how independent, how competent, and how involved is this person?” The more independent, competent, and involved, the more they need to have a hand in the solution design. In fact if you are a generalist product manager, or even someone with limited time (!), you NEED THEM to create the solution. Try to get buy-in from their management for them to help you solve the problem. For this, their management will need to buy in to the problem statement.
  5. Get management support. Sell management on the problem and the need for a solution. Share with them the degree to which you need or want help in designing the solution, and gain the commitment of their resources.

For some of this thinking, I am indebted to Interaction Associates, a collaboration consulting and training company in Boston and San Francisco. They have models for creating a “path to action” that describe the problem, vision, constraints, and solution approaches. I recommend checking out their classes on collaboration and facilitation; they’ve really helped me. They have a solution design model that I can’t find on the web and my copy can’t be redistributed. But really, check them out.

Again, I would love to hear from you about your ideas here and relevant articles.


3 responses to “How different people handle change

  1. Hi Alan, thank you for mentioning Interaction Associates! I believe you are talking about our model Pathways to Action, or the Big Picture model.

    A simplified version of that model can be found on our website, here:

    That model can then be adapted to approach the change from different spaces: Problem, Vision, Solution, or a combination.

    I enjoyed looking through your blog,
    Take care,

  2. People are clearly a product of their environment, and how they react to change is a clear indicator of that. Once bitten, twice shy comes to mind. Some see change as a threat to the status quo (and their current status), others see it as an opportunity.

    Rapid change is difficult for most people to deal with. Rapid changes in societies are usually very bloody, filled with power struggles as various groups try to seize power, influence, control etc.

    Change is better accepted when it is part of a process that is understood. People don’t mind being agents of change. They generally hate being the recipients of change.

    In the end, every human interaction is fundamentally some kind of transaction. — a sale or a purchase or exchange of something, whether physical, monetary, or abstract (a favour is a transaction).

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