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Change itself isn’t hard – we’re adaptive creatures.  What is hard is having changes imposed on us that we don’t see the point of.

Last week, I was at the sinks in a public washroom and I heard the woman next to me make a frustrated sound.  She was waving her hands around under the taps but nothing was coming out. She sighed loudly and said “I can never figure out how to turn on the damn tap anymore!”

I agree.  I’m always waving my hands around under a paper towel dispenser that actually requires you to turn a knob, or trying to find the under-faucet sensor.  “Why do they have to keep changing these things?” I think as I grit my teeth.  “Why can’t they decide on one method?” Even though I think of myself as a person who is very open to new ideas – and I spend a lot of time trying to debunk the notion that “change is hard” – there are some specific places where my expectations grind up against some unanticipated change, and it’s a frustrating experience.

So what is that?  Is change automatically hard?  Or is it a particular kind of change?

When we’re teaching about change, one of the things we often have people do is to close their eyes and slowly imagine all of the changes that have taken place for them in different situations: in their professions since they finished school… in their neighbourhood since their moved in… in parenting since they were children… in the clothes they wear in the past few years…in the weather over the past month… in their bodies since they hit puberty.  That last one usually gets a laugh, but people open their eyes and get it – we’re changing all the time, every day.  Adjusting to change is part of how we orient the world.  Change itself isn’t hard – we’re adaptive creatures.  What is hard is having changes imposed on us that we don’t see the point of.

The constant barrage of different wash/dry/flush technologies is a good illustration of this for me.  In new bathrooms, there is often a brief moment where I have to figure out how to do the thing that I have been doing mindlessly for 50 years.

Why do some of us get so irritated with the endless changes to basic handwashing?  First, we didn’t ask for them, and they surprise us.  We just want to go about something we do countless times in our lifetimes without thinking about it – and suddenly our flow grinds to a halt.

Second, technological innovation in bathroom hygiene can’t seem to find common ground – sometimes you have to wave, sometimes you don’t, none of the sensors look the same – we can’t just “settle” on what we need to do, so it’s always disruptive.  And half the time it doesn’t seem to work.

And finally – and this is the most important one – for the most part, it feels to me, this change is not necessary.  Washing our hands with soap and drying them on paper towels is a pretty effective technology.  The dozens of options are irritating and interrupt our flow.  No one wants to stop and think about how to dry their hands in the bathroom.

The lesson in all of this?  Change isn’t hard in and of itself.  Look at all of the profound changes in parenting and other cultural norms that have taken place in one generation — it’s no longer acceptable to spank children, drive drunk, smoke in public buildings or casually utter racial slurs.  And unlike when I was a kid in the 1970s, most people know where their children are when they leave the house.  These are profound changes, and they happened relatively effortlessly.  Because people moved toward something better.

What IS hard is change that lands on you disruptively with no apparent reason.

We are embedded in a constantly changing, adapting environment.  In your workplace, give some thought to which of those changes are actually moving toward a generative future – and which ones are the motion-activated splashy taps.  Try to minimize those and focus on the work that truly moves you forward.  Then change becomes natural adaptation and learning, not a disruptive irritant.

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