Surfing the Waves of Change

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Truth be told, I am not a good swimmer. I never was! However, after going through many changes in my life, I gained powerful tools that enabled me to surf the waves of change and dive deep into the ocean of opportunities without drowning. By applying and using some of the different Change Management tools I acquired throughout the years, I hope to help you successfully navigate any change you might face, also.

We have all gone through changes of one kind or another, whether moving to a new place, changing jobs, or even changing the scope of a job.  Our needs have changed, and even our personalities. Think how different you are today versus who you were as a teen. Think of the growth, development, and opportunities you have enjoyed because of this change. Change doesn’t always have to be bad, even if sometimes it is difficult. Yet many people fear change and will do whatever it takes to resist it.  Why is that?

In most cases, we associate change with loss. When faced with the prospect of change, we often hear loss, failure, and removal instead of opportunity, growth, and success. These overwhelming emotions show up because we fear losing control, confidence, comfort, power, jobs, money, and friends.

However, this fear of losing something stops us from surfing the waves of change and going where the magic happens. Ultimately, it prevents us from embarking on our big dreams and becoming truly fulfilled.

Garrett McNamara is an American professional, big wave surfer, and extreme waterman known for breaking the world record for the largest wave ever surfed at Nazaré, Portugal.  When asked how it feels when navigating through the waves, ‘does he think of the danger he is putting himself in and how does he deal with the fear at that moment?’ He simply said:”you just enjoy it.  Fear is something that we choose.  We control our minds.  We choose to be afraid or not. When we choose to be afraid, we are thinking about things that happened in the past or thinking about things that might happen. Two things that don’t exist. The past is history, and the future is not here”

The key to overcoming this fear and experiencing growth is to change our mindset as Garrett McNamara does.  Our mindset is what determines whether people see LOSS or OPPORTUNITY.

Addressing our mindset is crucial in any change, whether it is self-initiated or not.

If the change is self-initiated, it is our responsibility to shift our mindset.  Some might be saying, ‘but if I initiate a change, it means I will be committed to see it through’. Unfortunately, this is not always the case.  Fear and resistance could kick in at any time, in addition we can feel a sense of frustration that could take us back to our comfort zone especially if we feel we don’t have the ability to move forward. The following exercise will help:

  • Start making a list of what you will gain from this change instead of what you will lose.
  • Think ‘change is great’ and start asking yourself, ‘what is great about change?’
  • Then ask, ‘what else?’ ‘What else? ‘
  • Write down all of your answers and allow yourself to ‘SEE’ your thoughts.


As simple as this exercise is, its impact is huge.

At work, when change is happening because of an external factor, our input is important and so is the input of our leader or manager.  A great leader makes sure his team doesn’t get paralyzed by fear but sees and grabs the opportunities that can be gained. It has been proven that when change occurs without internal alignment or mind shift the change will be ineffective and unsuccessful.

Any change involves two major elements, ‘processes and people’.  In most cases the emphasis is on processes. Get the process right and everything will follow. However, forgetting the people will mostly lead to unsuccessful change.  We need to acknowledge the importance of each.

Different researchers have studied hundreds of change initiatives with similar results.  A high percentage of failed projects had excellent technical plans, but ultimately failed because management had ignored the people.  GE Change Management Team (1989/1990) translated this fact into a simple equation.  They created what is commonly known as the Change Effectiveness Equation; the Effectiveness (E) of any initiative is equal to the product of the Quality of the technical strategy (Q) and the Acceptance (A) of that strategy.

They chose a multiplication formula where if the acceptance is zero the effectiveness of the change is zero regardless of the strength of the technical solution.

In other words, if we have a great technical solution but little buy-in from people, a project will not be successful. Organizations are collections of people; there is no productive output without them.

Therefore, it is the responsibility of leaders to ensure that their people accept, adopt, and use the technical solution in order to achieve the desired outcome.  In his book ADKAR®: A Model For Change In Business, Government, And Our Community (2006) Jeff Hiatt, Prosci founder, introduced a framework for understanding change at an individual level. Because change can only happen when individuals change.

“ADKAR®” is an acronym for the five elements  an individual needs to achieve for a change to succeed: Awareness, Desire, Knowledge, Ability, and Reinforcement. All these elements must be in place for a change to be realized and to achieve the desired outcome.

So, now we identified the building blocks (ADKAR®) for implementing change successfully let us look at the stages of the process we must go through:

The most challenging stage is the transition stage. We need help moving through this stage fast and with the least damage to become more productive. This is the role of the person who is leading the change.

When I first graduated from college, I was excited and motivated to embark on corporate life.  I was lucky to be offered a job with a great company with a good reputation as a distributor of pharmaceutical products.

On my first day, I got up incredibly early and put on my professional suit. I carried my brand-new briefcase and marched into my new office.  I remember feeling thrilled, like I was the luckiest person in the world to be part of this organization.  As I adjusted the settings on my revolving chair and got comfortable, the phone rang, and I was called to my manager’s office.  I was greeted with a warm welcome and handed a box of (no, not chocolate…) literature.  The box was jam-packed with samples of a product I was to promote.  “Go and sell.”

I was lost and scared.  I started digging in the box, trying to understand what needed to be done, which got me nowhere. I was confused, my mind was foggy with negative thoughts, and I started believing I would fail.  I started drowning. I got no sales; my figures were not moving, and every time I went back to my manager, he would tell me, ‘Don’t worry, you will get the hang of it, you will find your way; it will eventually come.’

Many years later, I wonder how different the situation would have been if my manager had provided me with proper training on the product and the market. Or even if he had introduced me to the different cultures and spent some time coaching me to manage my fear and the negative state of mind? If this was the case, my outcome would have been very different.

When management initiates any change, it is vital for leaders to:

  • Build an awareness of the shift to smoothly move people through the transition stage.
  • Get employees to understand WHY the change is happening.
  • Support them with information, data, and examples they require.
  • Address their emotions and be honest about the short- and long-term threats and opportunities.


We need to know why change is happening.  But just because we understand doesn’t assume that we buy into the change. We need to know how we are affected by this change, how it will impact our jobs, and what opportunities will be provided by the future state. Creating a picture of the new future state is not enough. The initial idea must be translated into a specific solution with clear actions and behaviors to achieve the ultimate objectives.  With more precise knowledge of what we are signing up for and where we are headed, buy-in chances will be increased.

Other aspects that leaders need to address are values and beliefs. They must understand how their team members will feel and react and identify why resistance might surface. They can then develop influence strategies to minimize and eliminate resistance. Assessing emotions as people go from the current state through the transition state to the future state is vital. The key to effective Change Management is helping individuals to shift smoothly.

Many models have been established regarding the different emotions that people feel as they go through change. The most popular one is the Change Curve, developed by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross who studied how people respond to the prospect of death.  In her book, On Death and Dying (1969), she focused on the five stages of grief that people go through as they approach death: Shock, Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. This work was adopted by the corporate world and used to define how people react to all different forms of change.  By understanding and addressing our individual emotional journey, leaders can help us go through the curve in a much smoother way and achieve the desired outcome faster.

Another popular model is the Change Cycle Model.  In their book The Change Cycle (2008), Ann Salerno and Lillie Brock, introduced six predictable and sequential stages that indicates the feelings that we go through during change; Loss, Doubt, Discomfort, Understanding, and Integration.

As indicated earlier, fear of losing control plays a big role in why we resist change.  To get us to the stage of Integration leaders must be open and realistic about change, acknowledging ramifications good and bad, listening to objections, and validating the many concerns that will surface.

In the mid-nineties, I was involved in administering paper-based aptitude tests to university applicants.  The center was functional for over 40 years, when the board suddenly decided to move to computer-based testing without any prior notice.  The net result was total chaos both for the employees and the students.  To manage the situation the local director appointed a committee representing all stakeholders. The committee’s role was to address stakeholder concerns and understand reasons for resistance to implementation.

The main challenges were:

  • Employees were afraid to lose their jobs and their self-esteem.
  • Employees and students lost confidence in their capability levels – will they be able to operate the computers, will they be able to understand the new skills that they were testing for.


Under the leadership of the director, the committee set up strategies and tools that helped employees move smoothly through the emotional states such as:

  • Re-communicated the reason for change. They were consistent and frequent with their communication. What made this communication effective was the way that it was delivered.  They applied The Golden Circle that was developed by Simon Sinek, author of ‘Start with Why’ (2009). They spent time explaining the WHY, the purpose, the reason behind the change and the opportunities that were awaiting everyone.  They truly believed that this change would help both students and employees to move forward.
  • Identified the gap between the current mindset and where the company wants the employees to be for the change to be successful.  They spent time understanding individuals concerns and the underlying issues. The committee assigned coaches to coach the employees to get them see ‘What’s In It For Them’ instead of focusing on what they will lose. They leveraged interests and wins.
  • An extensive training was conducted on how to operate the system and were given time to practice building their ability before go-live.
  • A step-by-step tutorial was uploaded on each computer to train students on how to use the new system. A special time was also allocated for this process.


Ever since this case, I have implemented proper communication strategies, throughout my personal and professional interactions, to ensure success.  Building awareness, desire, getting buy-in, and changing the mindset are all about communicating effectively to win the hearts and minds of those impacted by change.

The tools discussed are considered part of the foundation of a successful change initiative.  Leaders play a vital role in helping us control our minds and change our perspective to view the ocean of opportunities and growth associated with change instead of loss of control, power, job, or money.

No tools can stand alone, for any tool to be effective it requires the right mindset and behaviors and as Steve Maraboli said, “Once your mindset changes, everything on the outside will change along with it.”

Written By Catherine Jeha