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Change Metaphors

The problem

You’re in charge of a project, and inevitably this involves the implementation of some changes. How do you bring about a change that really lasts, and not just some short-lived behaviours that look like change but actually revert to the old situation as soon as you leave the room?

How not to solve it

In every training session, you’ve been told that it involves the “unfreeze, move, refreeze” triplet. And the “unfreeze” step is possible when there is some “sense of urgency”. While it is certainly true that necessity is the mother of many changes, it is not true that these changes “stick” without additional effort of the people involved, the ones that have to actually modify their behaviours persistently. There are many cases of people becoming frustrated and dysfunctional in the face of urgency and pressure, while not succeeding in bringing about changes to their behaviour in such a manner as to allow them to return to a “normal”, happy and productive life. Real change is a difficult beast.

Why it does not work like you think it would

The reason why the “unfreeze, move, refreeze” model does not really apply, is that it does not take into account the sensemaking that people need in order to feel harmonious and functional.The ‘freeze’ metaphor is a very mechanical model, that actually looks upon behavioural change as if it were physics. As if people behave like ice…Using the ‘freeze’ metaphor puts you on the wrong track, because it makes you frame the implementation of change as a mechanical thing, and not as what it really is about: sensemaking and meanings.

What you should do

People need to make sense of their situation, and implementing change is not so much about physics as it is about meaning. Borrowing from Flores (and compatible with Watzlawick’s views about second order change), these are the alternative three steps to change that do take sensemaking as the root of change.

First articulation: to highlight things that have been only implicit, or mention stuff that is not talked about at all, making things visible by giving them a name, getting them out of the dark by discussing them. This is the necessary first step for things to change, it is the way to start preparing people’s minds for the new situation. Uncover hidden assumptions and constraints of the current situation, and/or highlight the not-yet-visible possibilities of a new situation.

Then reconfiguration: giving extra meanings to the now articulated subject, add new associations, create new connections and symbolizations; it also includes moving old meanings to the margin. This is necessary to free up space in the conceptual configurations that we all use to build our ‘world of meanings’, and in this freed-up space new meanings can be introduced and take hold.

Finally cross-appropriation: bring concepts and ideas from one domain into another domain; this creates a connection bridge, a hinging point, between two domains that were hitherto disjoint. This ‘reframes’ the situation in words that are familiar, but that have not yet been used in this specific context. This is what is sometimes called a ‘boundary object’. It requires an act of invention or creation to achieve this, and it is also a fundamentally language-based activity. In fact the concept of “metaphor” (literally: ‘to carry across’) neatly expresses what cross-appropriation is all about.

All organizational change processes where managers have declared a ‘refreeze’ without any relevant reconfiguration and cross-appropriation having taken place, are thus incomplete and won’t generate any lasting results – because the people involved have not been provided with ‘new meanings’ to sustain any changed behaviour.