For Lasting Change, Find the Right Pebble

Photo of pebble cairn

Photo of pebble cairn“I really need to get healthy and start working out, but I’ve been traveling so much lately. I just need one solid week at home.” As my colleague said this, I nodded along absentmindedly. I’ve been traveling frequently as well, so I know the struggles of adjusting to life without a routine. Then I thought more deeply about what he was saying. “Wait, what do you mean you need a week at home?” I asked. He said, “You know, that way I can actually go to my gym every day and actually make an impact.” But it still didn’t make sense to me, so I dug further “Aren’t there always fitness centers at the hotels you stay?” He grinned slightly and nodded yes. “So why do you need to be home for a week and go to your gym every day to get started, then?”

Like a kid who has been caught stealing an extra helping of dessert, he winked and said “I don’t. It’s just the story I tell myself, I suppose.”

Every individual has a different threshold for how much change they can manage. When we’ve met that threshold, we begin to tell ourselves stories to argue against incorporating any additional change. We create a narrative that is so convincing we don’t even believe we’ve crafted the excuses as a method of resistance. Even individuals with a high desire for change can convince themselves that the change needed is too overwhelming and will avoid the issue by initiating smaller changes with higher likelihood for instant gratification.

I hear these kinds of excuses most frequently when the topic is embracing cultural change in the organization. Certainly, cultural change is inherently difficult. Unraveling the complexities of incumbents with a clear set of values, organizational policies that may conflict with the aspired culture, and leaders who may not lead by example make the entire process long and frustrating, but there is never a right time to get started. There will never be an ideal block of time to make a large change. Nor does change happen all at once.

Just like my colleague’s wellness plan, nothing will happen if you’re waiting for the perfect time to tackle everything at once. Incremental changes are often more powerful than grandiose ones anyway. He didn’t need a week at his own gym to make an impact on his health, he needed to replace one bad choice at a time. Take one extra flight of stairs or replace one fast food trip with a salad to get the process rolling. When you’ve been asked to move a mountain, the only way to start is to find the right pebble to move that could initiate a domino effect of additional movement. Similarly, when change seems overwhelming, pick one small, manageable change that will generate the widest possible impact. Then when that change has been accepted, pick one more small, but manageable change that will keep the momentum going.

When a novice begins training for a marathon, expert coaches tell the runner not to think about the finish line. The 26.2 miles to the finish line much more overwhelming than motivating at that point.

The power is in the pebble.

They set milestones and sub-goals. They celebrate victories along the way and build their way to the final vision of success. When the end goal is 26.2 miles, only reaching one extra mile may not sound that impactful, but it’s the progress towards the change that matters. That first run; that first mile is the first pebble towards moving the “I need to do X before I could run a marathon” mountain they need to move.