I’m up early this morning, taking some quiet time before the house stirs to process thoughts and write. My eyes are repeatedly drawn to the Christmas tree in the corner of our great room as it is a truly marvelous sight. My wife and a friend spend an entire day each year creating a work of art that we enjoy for at least a month.
It has me thinking about our family traditions around Christmas. This year, they seem to be shifting in a number of ways. Our three year old granddaughter is the centerpiece of it all, but there are also other things at work. The context by which we created some of these traditions has changed. Our kids aren’t kids anymore … they are fully emerged adults and a different form of togetherness is required. Kendra and I have also come to the realization that gifts aren’t as important to us as we once thought. So Christmas is going to be different this year, but we’re not entirely certain how.
This experience with Christmas and associated traditions isn’t unique. This happens with families, groups, businesses, even individuals. What signs might we look for that indicate that it might be time for a tradition to change?
- Engaging isn’t as energizing – this always comes first for me. An event that is driven by tradition is approaching and I don’t sense the drive to engage. There isn’t the same appeal from the old ways.
- Other approaches are more appealing – we don’t always notice a negative energy associated with a tradition. We might also find ourselves pulled forward by a new idea or a desire for a new adventure. Either way, there is something telling you change is afoot.
- It feels like it doesn’t fit anymore – sometimes we jump right in and move forward in the traditional way, and part way through we notice that “square peg, round hole” sort of feeling. We’re still committed to the tradition, but somehow we’re aware that our surroundings are trying to tell us something’s wrong. Time to look for input!
- People aren’t showing up – just as we might not feel the same drive to engage, so might others. They often vote with their feet by withdrawing physically. We also can watch for those who still attend, but their heart isn’t in it.
- New suggestions are put forth – if you are hearing members of the group proposing new ways of doing things, it’s the same as #2 above … they are feeling more energized by a new approach and are being proactive to try to drive change.
So once we’ve recognized that our traditional way of doing things isn’t serving us as well as it used to, what do we do to fix it?
- Check in with yourself – hold the idea of doing something different this time in your mind and ask yourself “where do I stand”? Are you excited by the change? Are you resisting it? Look for the underlying reasons as it may help others if you can express how you are impacted.
- Check in with the group – some will want change, others might not. Find out where everybody stands. This is a critical point in the process. First, it will tell you if it is only you who is unsettled or whether others are feeling it too. Second, it identifies those that will have difficulty with letting go of old ways. Pay special attention to learning what will be hard for them.
- Work together to design the next thing – start with illuminating the purpose the tradition has for the group. That will become your sounding board for the rest of the work. Now start an open dialogue where everyone knows it is a design exercise, not a commitment. What about the current traditions still work? What are the parts that are creating the need for change? Make sure everyone gets a voice in both, and then work together to create a proposal for a new approach.
- Agree to try it out – the nice thing about most traditions is they don’t disappear just because we set them aside for a cycle or two. If the more reluctant members of the group know that they aren’t committing to a permanent change, they are more likely to give it a try at least once.
- Check back in with the group – after the first cycle through the newly proposed solution, get the group back together. Have everyone express what worked well for them, and what might need a second look. Recognize up front that you might have naysayers who may want to shoot it down. Don’t react – ask for clarification when you need it, but also push gently to find at least one thing from each person that they enjoyed. There are three possible outcomes from this check-in. Keep the new tradition, go back to the old or design the next proposal from the feedback developed here.
All of the above is really just a variation on traditional change management. There are two things that are important to know about traditions. First, traditions are owned by a group, not any authority and therefore any leadership we provide must be servant based. Second, and more importantly, is that each of us likely has some emotional tie to the tradition. Thus it isn’t enough to just be logical about the change. When we listen openly for signs of emotions at work, whether an attachment to the old way or a fear of the new way, we will have much more probability of having a group success.
When have you been involved in a change of traditions? What worked? What didn’t?