Change involves navigating our expectations and perceptions then taking action. It might also involve getting pushed from those behind you.
Consider a kid who summons the courage to climb the high diving board with the intent to jump for the first time. Some kids will climb up to the ladder, look down and leap while others might get up there, pause, struggle, and choose to climb back down the ladder, giving up.
If there are no other kids or people wanting to use the diving board the choice to abandon the dive might be slightly embarrassing, but relatively easy. However, if there are already two or three kids on the ladder behind them waiting for their turn, the choice to dive or not dive changes takes on a different meaning. Backing down becomes much more difficult.
In this scenario, one kid made a plan, took a risk, and succeeded in her goal. The other kid made a plan, took a risk, and failed in their goal. What happens in the scenario when the choice is to abandon the dive only to find that the way out is blocked because of kids lined up on the ladder behind them?
This is a big part of what I call the High Diving Board Problem and it is found in change efforts everywhere. Seeing it and understanding it can make a big difference in how we design for change.
The High Diving Board Problem
The High Diving Board problem presents us with a scenario that is at first simple, but underneath the surface illustrates enormous challenges for organizations seeking to innovate because it involves risk, perceptions, hope, and both individual and social factors that combine together in a situation that is dynamic, distorted, and also very real.
Let’s start with risk and perception. It’s one thing to be brave in the abstract, it’s another when it’s real, right in front of you, and more than you expected when you first undertook the challenge. Almost everyone who’s attempted to jump off a high diving board for the first time says the same thing when they get out of the pool: “It looks a lot higher from up there (on the diving board) that it does down here” .
There are many reasons for this, but one of them is about perception. When you look down into the pool from a diving board you are looking both at the surface distance (the distance from the board to the water) and the floor distance (the distance from the board to the base of the pool). You are seeing two images at the same time and one distance might make us feel like we’re jumping at twice the height we first imagined.
Both distances are real. Yet, the way we perceive these distances is distorted both from the ground and from the diving board.
Distorted perceptions and risk
When a kid decides to (literally!) take the leap and head to the high diving board they do so based on a distorted perception and the risk based on that perception. The first distortion is the perception of height from the ground. The second distortion is created by seeing both the distance to the water and to the bottom of the pool at the same time. (See this article for a great summary of research on how we perceive object sizes through a lens of distortion and relativism (PDF)).
The choice to climb the ladder and jump is based partly on the risk that the diver assumes at the start based on their perceptions of height and associated dangers. Except, when the would-be-diver gets to the top of the ladder the risk calculus changes. The diver is now faced with something that appears to be higher and also unexpected. The dive wasn’t all that they signed up for.
And yet, many will end up diving anyway.
Some, however, will climb back down and maybe try again or suggest that diving boards aren’t for them.
But what about those kids who get to the top, decide they don’t want to jump, yet find a row of kids right behind them wanting to dive? Let’s return to them.
Traffic on (the) board
When you’re boxed in on the top of the diving board the choice to abandon the dive is filled with new risks. There is the heightened embarrassment associated with having all these kids climb back down (if they can) and the associated attention that brings, which is far more than if there isn’t anyone behind you. Then there is the risk that you’ll have to leap when you’re not ready or wanting to.
A couple of different results might come from that. One is that you jump against your will and, barring injury, choose to never put yourself in that situation again. A second is that you jump and find that it wasn’t so bad. Maybe that pressure from those behind you was just what you needed to literally take the plunge.
This situation — the perceptions, risks, social pressures, and outcomes — are all parallel to the experience of innovating in an organization. From the high diving board (high risk, high visibility, unknown parameters) to the changing risk assessment (e.g, more or different risk than expected, changing perceptions, distortions in what you can see and perceive) change presents many challenges.
Add in the pressure of having others see you make the decision (or not) and the risk of executing a plan that wasn’t designed for the situation you find yourself in and suddenly the reasons for not following through on your innovation proposal seem more understandable.
Innovation lessons from the pool
It’s easy to get into the shallow end of the pool like that pictured above. You climb down, stand, and just do most of what you would do on the pool deck, except in water. But diving means getting into a radical change with radical conditions with height, jumping, and the quick plunge into the water.
Yet, once you’re in the water after the dive, things are back to normal. Assuming you didn’t injure yourself on the dive, most who jump in find a sense of exhilaration and relief when they surface in the water. Many kids then rush out of the pool to do it all over again.
The Diving Board Problem for organizations is found when they perceive innovation taking place in a certain manner, but realizing it’s different when they seek to make it real. The most salient example is when an organization invests in a research, design, and planning process for a new program, idea, or process only to abandon its implementation when it was time to launch.
This is the same thing as getting to the top of the diving board, seeing that the risk of doing something new feels more intense than before. Actually doing something takes a lot more guts than not doing something, yet the overall level of risk might be the same. The risk of not doing something can be enormous, but it’s a safer feeling option.
The truth is that diving increases the risk of injury. Not diving and just swimming increase the risk of drowning. Neither are 100% safe. The same is true for innovation. But if we don’t ever get into the pool, we can guarantee that we won’t succeed.
Fortunately, we can design strategies that can support us in making change happen.
- Prepare ourselves for the uncertainty of innovation. Recognize that things will seem more daunting when we actually put ourselves in the position to innovate. We are climbing the ladder and when we get to the top, we will see things differently. By priming ourselves to expect this, we are better able to handle it when we get there. Prime your innovation team for this reality in advance. This can also mean being each others’ cheerleader and support.
- Experience reduces the effect of uncertainty. Kids are scared when they first get on to the diving board. The more times they do it, the less they get scared of the dive and the more they get energized by the various dives they can do. It’s the same thing for innovators.
- Shift focus from risk to performance. The more often you make the attempt, the less risky it feels and the more we can focus our energy on the performance. Expert divers are focused on what they do on the diving board and in the dive, not the height or the social situation around the diving board. The more comfortable we get with doing innovation the better prepared we are to focus on what we do and what it achieves and less about what kind of risks we’re taking.
- Harness the power of traffic. Having traffic behind you is a powerful motivator to execute. This can be done by design. By bringing others along and aligning a system of activities that are dependent on one another for success we can instill the power of positive social or organizational pressure to ensure we deliver. One of the biggest reasons that organizational change initiatives are allowed to die on the launchpad is that there is nothing reliant on its success. If you’re blocking the other kids from diving and can’t get down, there’s only one real option: act.
- Write our stories of change. Once we act, document it. Evaluation is a means to document our stories and provide evidence of what we did. We learn what worked, what didn’t, and what happened along the way.
- Share stories. One way to prime ourselves for the challenge of innovating is to share the stories of our work. Tell our peers about how the perceptions are different ‘up there on the diving board’ than they are down on the pool deck and that it is OK. The more we share with our peers and remove the illusions of innovation, the greater we normalize the process and learn from each other. Innovation is about doing something new, what we can do by sharing stories about it make it seem familiar.
Innovation is more challenging than we expect and knowing that in advance will make it far better and more likely that, when it’s our turn to walk to the end of that diving board, we will jump into it.