Change Management: On Embracing Stillness

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“…when you are in a state of deep internal stillness, you see the truth of change, the truth of impermanence that’s constantly in flow, moment by moment. And so that becomes a kind of insight that liberates you….”

—Joan Halifax, Zen teacher and medical anthropologist

Slow down to wake up. This is a motto I’ve carried around and tried to live by since 2013 when I attended a five-day meditation retreat with Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh in Ayutthaya, Thailand.

Due in part to past trauma, as well as living in a society that encourages doing and speed rather than being and stillness, I’d developed societally-acceptable habits of running away (through physical training) when I felt mental and emotional discomforts arise.

For sure this strategy helped me cope (in a way that a raft would to someone alone and flailing in the middle of the ocean), but it didn’t help me get to the root of anything — it didn’t provide a paddle or signs pointing to the closest shore.

Not surprisingly, change managers often assume that movement (even when the movement is merely flailing) is the only path to change management success. Moving, doing… they feel like progress even when they are not.

But, as the wisdom of Roshi Joan Halifax and countless Buddhist teachers remind us, stillness creates space for us to see change more clearly. Creating the space is only opening the door; what change agents do in the room is what matters.

Start with sitting for five minutes in silence each day without a goal other than focusing on the sensations of breath and body. Over time, managers of change can expand this time and also build micro-moments of stillness into their workdays for the sake of pausing their pursuit of doing (and the doing they’ve asked others to do) to reflect on if it’s the best path forward.

After all, how can change management leaders expect to manage large-scale change if they haven’t developed a practice of managing internal change?

As Valerie Brown, a dharma teacher in the Plum Village tradition, writes:

“In his writings and teachings, Thich Nhat Hanh speaks of the importance of stopping and looking deeply to see a situation clearly and develop greater understanding. Practically speaking, this means pausing, returning to our body and breath, and considering whether our perceptions, beliefs, assumptions, or thoughts are correct. It means asking, is there more that I may not be seeing or understanding?”

Enter change management pioneer Kurt Lewin

For those change managers wondering if stillness ties back in some way to the origins of change management… wonder no more!

Stillness played a key role in bookending the foundational change management process described by change pioneer Kurt Lewin. For those unfamiliar with this process, a 2017 paper in the Journal of Change Management titled Kurt Lewin: 70 Years On by Professor Bernard Burnes and Professor David Bargal offers a solid primer:

“Lewin defined the change process as consisting of three stages. The first stage is ‘unfreezing’ of the present level of customs or habits. To achieve this, Lewin argued that it is necessary to break open the shell of complacency and self righteousness. Thus, in order to change attitudes and behaviour, the individual needs to be stirred up emotionally and experience a process that Allport (1948) referred to as catharsis. The second stage of change is ‘moving’, when the change actually occurs; and the third stage is ‘freezing’, now more commonly referred to as refreezing. This is when the new habit or norm is adopted and institutionalized. Lewin believed that the best and most effective means of bringing about change in individuals is through group encounters. Thus, the group became one of the major vehicles in action research and OD. In essence, Lewin believed that we could build a better world by using field theory to change the behaviour of groups.”

Note: check out the change management infographic of Kurt Lewin’s change model if you want a visual way of digesting this.

While Kurt Lewin’s change process is still used by thousands of organizations, the vast change management literature on Lewin hasn’t talked much about the role of stillness.

The model begins with unfreezing, but change leaders should understand that this means there was stillness prior to: stillness of stagnancy and/or complacency of an operational state, and stillness in the change leader(s) who were able to pause from the status quo urgency long enough to envision a new and hopefully better way forward (I say hopefully here because there’s often an assumption in change management that the new envisioning is, by default, a better way).

The second stage of Lewin’s model is “moving,” but the third and final stage is re-freezing — in essence, creating a dynamic stillness.

This re-freezing stillness takes work to maintain. Like sitting meditation, it may at times appear as if nothing is happening, but there is often seriously hard work going on. Re-freezing involves forming new habits based on what was discovered and deemed successful during the moving phase.

Lastly, because the change process has been re-frozen, change managers should see it both as the end and as the beginning. The time to begin thinking about change is precisely when things are going well — when you don’t feel the urgency to do so. This is one reason of many why change management initiatives fail — they were far too late in getting started. Neither the external pace of change nor the increasingly competitive landscape will slow down to wait for your change management plan to unfold.

In slowing down and finding stillness, change managers can better capture the insights that often appear in a flash, and they can set the stage for the work to come. As Roshi Joan Sutherland writes in Everything is Enlightenment:

“It’s as though revelation happens at the speed of electrical impulses in the brain, while embodiment happens at the speed of the heart, which is a slow-beating muscle.”

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