picture courtesy of Alamy

I have been traveling the country speaking about nonprofit megatrends and one thing is clear: the pace of change is leaving everyone overwhelmed and a bit disconnected. We talk a lot about change, but not enough about the other side of the coin: transformation. Change is inevitable, but transformation requires a choice, followed by solid execution. As I share with clients and students, in my experience, both personally and professionally, transformation requires a clear, measurable vision, an open mindset and focused discipline. These are great in theory, but how do we achieve them? To get us started, I am sharing two fun sources. The first is a favorite article from 2021 by Harvard researcher Herminia Ibarra that catalogs the “3 Phases of Making a Major Life Change.” The second is a favorite TV show, “Ted Lasso,” which is the Apple TV+ series that follows an American “football” coach in England who unexpectedly finds himself leading an English soccer team. We are kicking off this Memorial Day weekend with a little fun and the best practical tips for change and transformation based on research and our favorite Ted Lasso-isms.

Phase 1: Challenge Accepted & Supported (or Separation)

“Taking on a challenge is a lot like riding a horse, isn’t it? If you’re comfortable while you’re doing it, you’re probably doing it wrong.” – Ted Lasso

The Harvard research supports my own experience leading social organizations through change – growing pains create the conditions for change, but we rarely “think our way into a new way of acting.” Part of the problem is that for transformation to happen, we need to be comfortable with the change. As Arthur Burt said, “Nothing happens until the pain of remaining the same outweighs the pain of change.” This is why most people don’t adopt healthier habits until they have a major medical condition that requires it. Or why you change a lot when going to college or moving to a new place. And why most people contact us for a strategic plan when their organization is in crisis or decline, instead of in a growth phase.

The first phase of a transformation is called “Separation” in the framework that Herminia Ibarra developed because research suggests that we are more “malleable when separated from the people and places that trigger old habits and old selves.” This change can be physical or situational. We generally surround ourselves with like-minded people, so surrounding ourselves with those who will challenge us or support our new change is important (e.g., Weight Watchers, Running Clubs, Accountability Circles). The research shows us that transformation does not happen in isolation – it happens in community. But these new people are likely to make us uncomfortable, so we must get comfortable with being uncomfortable.

So, what does this mean? As you set your goals, think about the conditions surrounding them. What and who do you need to make them happen? What support can others provide you to help you move forward? The research shows that the more people you tell about your goal, the more you are held accountable (albeit sometimes unconsciously). So, tell people your plans or goals. You can even consider posting it to social media, if you want a larger audience. (My goal: finally, write my book this summer!)

Phase 2: Learning Outside Your Comfort Zone (or Liminality)

“I believe in Communism. Rom-communism, that is. If Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan can go through some heartfelt struggles and still end up happy, then so can we.” – Ted Lasso

We have written a lot about the importance of “continuous improvement” or creating a “learning organization.” But the Harvard research also talks about the idea of liminal learning, which is a fancy way of saying “learning outside of your comfort zone.” It involves planning “creative interludes” to do new and different things with new and different people. Google even requires their team members to take “creative interludes” to explore their ideas. These have proved successful as many of the ideas generated from these “interludes” have been incorporated into their platform. While doing these exercises are useful, the key to success is learning from these experiences. For example, this year, I took a watercolor class and agreed to serve on a new board – Aileron. Each new experience makes clearer the difference between what challenges that bring me joy and what is just busy work. This summer I encourage you to plan one “creative interlude” – something you never would do that purposely puts you out of your comfort zone.

So, what does this mean? My favorite tool to help take stock and plan for the future is the Year CompassIt was shared with me by my favorite MBA professor, Cathy Clark, and I have used it ever since. It takes you through your calendar day-by-day and challenges you to really think about the year in a meaningful way. Sometimes I even do a “burning ceremony” to consciously rid myself of things, people and habits that no longer serve me (my latest habits to “burn”: saying “yes” too often and being too accommodating). This Memorial Day consider one habit that you want to break and work toward it.

Phase 3: New Ways of Working (or Reintegration)

“You know what the happiest animal on Earth is? It’s a goldfish. You know why? It’s got a 10-second memory.” – Ted Lasso

Change inevitably leads to disappointment if it isn’t sustained. That is why I focus more on transformation, which can only be achieved through solid execution. We know that environment matters. If we don’t have sugar in the house, we will eat less sugar. If cities have recycling on street corners, people will choose to recycle. If we create a dashboard paired with a strategic plan, milestones are more likely to be met.

This is why change management principles are so important. We are not wired for transformation. Our brains resist and even sabotage change. So, we need to create an environment (physically AND emotionally) that supports it.

So, what does this mean? My favorite tool for this stage is probably obvious – a plan or sometimes a manifesto with an accountability partner. We know that writing down goals is important, sharing them is crucial and doing accountability check-ins with a partner/coach makes you unstoppable. And if you have time, I’d encourage you to really reflect on times when you successfully made changes (e.g., transformation) and times you did not. Each of us is unique and needs a special formula for change – based on our personality, key motivators and drivers, and influences. If you have a formula that works, use it. (My formula: A visual manifesto with catchy phrases that motivate me, bite-sized goals that add up to big change, incentives when I achieve something small and large, and cheerleading friends.)

Final Thoughts

“I feel like we fell out of the lucky tree and hit every branch on the way down, ended up in a pool of cash and Sour Patch Kids.” – Ted Lasso

We started this blog over 10 years ago, and it was one of the best decisions of my professional career. Every Thursday I get the chance to share my latest thinking with all of you. It is my way of reinforcing my own transformation – personally and professionally. I am one lucky girl. I don’t desire the “pool of cash,” but I do plan to celebrate this Memorial Day weekend with my favorite candy: Sour Patch Kids. I hope that today you feel the same. If you’d like to share any of your secrets to successful transformation, we’d love to hear them.


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