Why change is like sledding with children


In my heart, I am an 8-year-old boy trapped in the body of a 34-year-old man.

In my heart, I am an 8-year-old boy trapped in the body of a 34-year-old man. In reality, I am a middle-aged man blessed with a wonderful, beautiful, princess-obsessed daughter whom I really don't understand. As a result, I spend my time looking for things that both little girls and 8-year-old boys enjoy. When I find those things, I jump all over them. These adventures are my fondest pastimes.

A few months ago, a mammoth snowstorm hit the East Coast, and I remembered that both little girls and inner children enjoy sledding. I set about organizing the neighborhood kids in a bid to blaze a sled path down the hill in my yard. The process turned out to be not at all what I expected, and I distinctly remember one point where I found myself separated from my sled with my face in a snow berm. At the time, I thought, "This process is exactly like trying to make changes at a veterinary hospital." Here's how I got there:

The benevolent idea

Most change initiatives I see start (and end) with what I like to call "The Benevolent Idea." This is the plan that one idealist puts forward with the greatest of certainties that other team members will see the value in it, embrace it for its brilliance, and then execute this miraculous vision.

In the case of my sled experiment, the benevolent idea took the form of me in the middle of a circle of adolescent girls. (Males seem to be scarce in nearly every aspect of my life.) My arms flailed wildly as I demonstrated the velocity and excitement that a sled course would bring after the kids had packed down the snow. The crowd dispersed, with the most polite kid remarking, "Yeah ... that idea might be cool."

The personal investment

As I stood alone with my sled and my 3-year-old watching from the living-room window, I found my resolve. While I've allowed many initiatives to die amidst a sea of eye rolling, that would not be the case here. I decided this was too important, and that I was willing to roll up my big, puffy sleeves and make it happen. It would be hard work, but I was confident the children would see I was invested. They would understand I was serious about this initiative and would help me create something outstanding for us all. I trudged alone to the top of that hill. I took ownership of the plan and committed myself to making it a reality.

I put my sled in the spot I believed would yield maximum velocity once the snow below was packed. I sat down. The sled sank about eight inches into the powder, and snow went up my pant legs. The urge to join my daughter in the living room surged. Instead, I started the tedious, exhausting process of slowly plowing my overloaded Dora-the-Explorer sled down the hill through the powder. My arms burned, and my shoulders ached. The process seemed never-ending.

The neighborhood kids continued a dance routine that I had interrupted with my original proposal. The sounds of Justin Bieber made me wish I had never started this process. But I had come too far to stop now. My commitment to the project was strong enough that I would pursue the goal even if everyone around me chose to ignore what I was doing.

Visible results

Just as my resolve began to waver and I was about to resign myself to a life where my daughter would dance to teeny-bopper songs instead of ride a sled with her father, it happened. The snow started to give way, and the sled made progress. Each trip I made down the hill plowed the trail further forward. Top speeds were slowly increasing, and rides were getting longer.

The bubble-gum music quieted. Soon, it stopped altogether, and kids with sleds appeared ready to take part in something that was clearly working. They packed, and the course grew longer. The vision became a reality. The team was energized and enthusiastic. My daughter and I laughed and rode together. One girl shouted, "This is great! I'm so glad we made this!"

I resisted the urge to tell her to get off my sled track and said, "Yeah! We're really making this dope!" (I thought I heard somewhere that kids were saying that again, but the look she gave me said otherwise.) Just as in the veterinary hospital, everyone wants to be part of a success. When people see results, they're much more willing to get involved. If you let them, this is when the tide finally turns in all change initiatives.

Sustained change

As the days went by, the kids continued to spend time on the hill (even though I was too sore to lift my arms, much less carry a sled). The snow packed down tighter and froze over to create a lightning-fast sled ride that made me glad I have extra liability insurance. The vision was realized in full, and an entire neighborhood of little girls (and one dad) benefitted. When initiatives produce results and get buy-in from the team, they become part of the culture. They become "just what we do," and that is how changes become permanent (unless a key component of your initiative melts, of course).

As I evaluate ideas for change in the clinic where I work, I think back on this experience often. Ideas for change are exciting, but executing change is not easy. "Benevolent ideas" fail. If you're willing to put an idea forward, then you should also be willing to stand behind it and exert the energy to make it happen. You will often work alone and without recognition, but results change minds. If you can present a plan that you believe in and push it all the way to positive results, then you can bring your team on board and make a permanent organizational change. Or at least a great sled track.

Dr. Roark is an associate veterinarian in Leesburg, Va.

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