Have you ever been frustrated when a great idea of yours fizzled? In hindsight, do you think it was missing any of the keys to successful change (listed below)?
The Avocado Tree
Last October my mother-in-law and my 5-year-old daughter got very excited about a science experiment. They put an avocado pit into a cup of water and then observed what happened next. My daughter was fascinated by the idea of a tree sprouting out of the ping pong ball-sized pit that came out of the middle of an avocado.
My mother-in-law eventually went home, but we continued to see changes occur. Little by little, the pit cracked open and a new plant began to emerge. After several months, we transferred the growing plant from its original home in a cup of water to a pot filled with dirt.
At first, we watered it regularly. Leaves began to grow out of the stem.
Then other things came up. The end of the school year. Camping trips. Vacation.
Interest in the avocado plant waned. Remembering to move it to a spot so that the sun didn’t scorch it as the summer took hold and remembering to water it regularly just wasn’t as interesting as other, newer stuff in our lives.
Less than a year later, this…
…turned into this…
This weekend I walked by the dead stick, and three thoughts struck me:
- If this is how we care for new little living things, we’re definitely not ready for a puppy!
- There’s no doubt in my mind that if my mother-in-law lived closer, this plant would still be alive.
- This is an incredible metaphor for way too many new initiatives at work.
Translating the Metaphor
How could this avocado plant have eventually flourished and survived long enough to become a tree? Its best hope would have been for our family to have treated this like any other change initiative.
In his book The Heart of Change (and in pretty much any other book he’s written), John Kotter outlines 8 keys to successful change initiatives:
- Increase urgency: With so many other distractions, allocating time on the avocado plant wasn’t really a priority for anyone. And once we transplanted it into a pot with soil and had to water it, nobody had a sense of urgency about keeping up with it. Which is similar to that new, shiny online training academy; with all the day-to-day work to be done, does anyone really have time to keep signing up for courses and completing them?
- Build the guiding team: Once my mother-in-law left, nobody was really in charge of continuing to labor over the plant. If a change initiative depends wholly on one person, it may never grow to maturity.
- Get the vision right: Was this a one-time science experiment? Or did we really want to grow a tree? And was that training on the new performance management system a one-time event? Or were people expected to actually do something with it when they left the training room?
- Communicate for buy-in: Most everyone in our house thought the experiment was neat… and as long as someone else took care of it, it might make a fine tree someday. It may have been helpful if the ultimate vision was shared and if expectations around workload had been agreed upon.
- Empower action: My mother-in-law initiated the project. I watered it for a while. But my daughter – who was clearly enthusiastic about the project – was never included in the caretaking of the plant. When there are willing supporters, they should be involved and empowered to take control.
- Create short-term wins: It was fun and exciting to see a stem sprout from the seed. And then to see leaves sprout from the stem. But then new developments took longer and there was no more excitement. Would this thing ever turn into an actual tree?! And while we’re speaking of short-term wins, who cares if I complete one course or seven courses or thirty courses in that new elearning system? When can I finish my learning and just be good enough?
- Don’t let up: Yeah, watering the plant should have been routine. But we stopped. And it died. Perhaps if we had someone reminding us on a daily basis or sending us a watering schedule, even if from afar, it would still be alive today.
- Make change stick: Ultimately, John Kotter suggests the true sign of successful change is when it becomes part of the daily routine. Our poor little avocado plant, like so many other ideas that were once new and exciting, never made it that far.
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