EDIT: A formula you can use to convert change (変化) into transformation (変革) by writing stories of agency, purpose, growth, connection, contribution and meaning

EXPLORE – Scan internally and externally, forward and backward, to find out what grabs and keeps your attention

DEFINE – Narrow your focus to one clearly-articulated problem/opportunity or set of problems/opportunities that seems worthy of an investment of energy and other resources

ITERATE – Cycle systematically through a series of experiments to clarify what you are able to achieve and the best way(s) to achieve it

THRIVE/TRANSFORM/TRANSITION – Pause periodically to savor the experience of learning and assess what to do next:

  • move from iterative pilot to standard personal practice or transformational rollout to others, or
  • continue to iterate and adjust your experiments to hone your formula, or
  • shift to a new transformational focus (see note at end of this post for comments on why T shifts depending on what you learn during the EDI stages)

Over the years, I’ve used many (and come up with a few of my own) models for learning, change, leadership and execution. What has often left me a bit uncomfortable with many of these models, though, is that they seem to be based on the assumption that we are always in a position to choose and pursue a goal that is worth pursuing now and will continue to be worth pursuing into the foreseeable future. I worry that we often end up locked into the pursuit of goals that are less meaningful than they could be.

Long before concepts like VUCA and BANI entered the business vernacular, I had a gut feeling that the world might be less orderly and more malleable than it seemed. It’s not that I don’t believe there is order. I just tend to think the order we attribute to the world barely scratches the surface of what’s going on, and there is probably value in constantly investing at least some energy in ongoing exploration of emergent factors that might lead us to revise our goals and plans.

Thanks to Yuval Herari, Robert Kegan and others who have ushered us into the “the age of the narrative”, it has become more and more common for us to talk about the stories, rules and assumptions we use to explain and constrain the world as fictions that we hold in common. They are something we create and then maintain together. This is not to say that there is not a reality that exists on the other side of our stories, just that our experience of the world is influenced by the explanatory stories or theories we explicitly or tacitly accept as true.

Because our encounters with the world are at least partly informed by our stories about the world, there is often space for us to adjust our stories in ways that influence those encounters. Our influence is not limitless. While the world is less stable than it often seems, it is nonetheless orderly in no small part because the vast majority of us either don’t question the stories given to us or in some cases either explicitly or tacitly judge that it makes more sense to play along with them than to question them. You might say our attachment to our shared stories does at least create a form of inertia that serves as a proxy for stability.

If we accept that our understanding of our markets, organizations and economies and ecosystems is at least partially held together by the stories we share, then this opens up the possibility that each of us might have the power to create new stories or make changes to those stories that might be accepted by enough of our peers to trigger shifts within the greater systems that subsume us. We have the power to edit at least some parts these stories.

With this worldview in mind, for a couple of decades I’ve been encouraging my customers and colleagues to adopt iterative rather than static models in their leadership and change planning. I’ve anchored this philosophy in the term ideapractice; we are constantly moving through cycles in which our ideas about the world are to varying degrees translated into changes in the world. When talking with my Japanese clients, I positioned this cycle as a tool they could use to reframe ‘henka’ 変化 (passive change that happens to them) into ‘henkaku’ 変革 (proactive transformation that we can own and drive). I don’t try to convince them that they can transform everything, just to consider the possibility that they can influence some things. Even in the midst of an overarching change story over which they have little control – if they choose to – they can often become co-authors of the story by embedding some of their own preferences and priorities into the process by which the story is realized. They probably can’t replace the entire script of the changes unfolding around them, but they often can contribute more edits than they might initially assume.

The core challenge in many of these situations is that we need to come up with a story that is powerful and believable. Our story has to be appealing to the stakeholders whose support we require to turn our edits into reality. Our story needs to be believable because a change – almost by definition – entails making something true in the future that is not true in the present. As I’ve described in a separate essay, creating transformation requires commitment and most of us are not willing or perhaps even able to commit to something we believe is untrue and unlikely to become true in the future.

I’ve played with the cycle various times, but recently I landed a formula that resonates with the current emphasis on narrative and storytelling as a core leadership skill.

My current formula for ideapractice is EDIT, a cycle breaking down into 4 quadrants or stages one naturally goes through as one converts a story of ‘change (変化) to be passively coped with’ into a story of ‘transformation (変革) in which we make conscious choices about what we want to create’ in the context of that change.

EXPLORE (context/feelings/possibilities external and internal)

The EDIT model assumes that change is the only constant and much of that change is not something that we drive, but rather something that does in fact come from external sources (other people, organizations, markets, society) and/or internal sources that are not fully under our conscious control: Our competitors prices go up or down. Our colleagues treat us well or badly. The company’s new strategy excites us or it doesn’t. Our interests shift as we age, etc.

In the EXPLORE phase, we are not yet interested in establishing a TRANSFORMATIONAL goal. Rather we are searching for interesting opportunities. The EXPLORE stage is about consciously tuning into our “sense” of how things are going.

Some of this is about cognitive questions. What seems to be going well? What seems to not be going as well as hoped? On what basis do we assess how things are going?

Some of this is about affective questions. How have we been feeling lately? Has there been a shift in those feelings? What might be the cause of that shift?

DEFINE (problem/opportunity/gap to focus on)

Once we have collected a decent number of items to explore, we are ready to consider which ones are worth actually working on. In this stage, we use a combination of quantitative and qualitative standards to narrow our focus to one transformation opportunity.

Once we have chosen an item or theme to work on, we want to convert it into a statement that clarifies a gap to be closed between things as they are and things as we want them to be.

That transformation opportunity could be quite broad, e.g. “We want to improve our employees well-being (implying that we have a sense of the current baseline level of wellbeing and we want to raise it to a higher level).

In some cases, the transformation opportunity might be much more narrow, e.g. “We want to reduce the number of sick days people use.”

There are various ways to make these transformation opportunity statements more or less rigorous. There are also ways to focus them on an executable transformations versus and explorable changes. The most important thing, though, is that we describe the transformation opportunity in a way that makes it feel powerful (desirable) and believable to ourselves and the stakeholders we need to engage.

ITERATE (ways to address gap until you find the “right” formula)

Once we have selected one item or theme and defined it into a powerful, believable transformation opportunity statement, we are ready to start doing the work of testing and validating the transformation opportunity statement in a real world context. This involves creating a hypothesis, taking action, collecting data and assessing the impact of that data in relation to the transformation opportunity statement.

In the iteration stage, I sometimes tacitly and sometimes explicitly use a model called CIAO to plan and track cycles of experimentation. The idea here is to conduct a series of limited-scale experiments using limited resources and a narrow target group. Our goal in the ITERATE stage is to shape our transformation opportunity statement into a powerful believable narrative we can promote for roll out in a broader context. The CIAO model can be represented as a cycle or as a 4-box planner in which each stage or box clarifies some aspect of the experiment:

CONTEXT – In what context or situation will we conduct our experiment? A context statement includes factors like people, places, resources and other aspects of current reality, particularly descriptions of factors that explain why we are doing the experiment. Examples:

  • My team has missed several deadlines on our current project.
  • The company is embarking on a new strategy that changes our relationships with other teams.

INTENDED OUTCOME(S) – What is the “to be” state we are hoping to realize at some specific point in the future? Examples:

  • We will notice whether or not we are on track to meet deadlines at least 3 days in advance. What would this look like in terms of a SMART goal, if appropriate?
  • Our team will started laying the foundation to re-position our relationships with other teams by the time the new strategy is launched. What proxy indicators would help us track whether we are doing the right things and whether we are making progress?

ACTION(S) – What specific things can we say or do to move toward realization of the intended outcome? Examples:

  • Who will use what process to track our progress on each of our deadlines and how will that person keep us updated and proactively engaged on moving things forward?
  • Who will take what steps by when to begin the re-alignment process with the teams we collaborate with?

ACTUAL OUTCOME(S) – After we have started taking action, what outcomes are we actually getting and how do they match up with our intended outcomes?

  • Have we stopped missing deadlines? What concrete evidence do we have?
  • Have we effectively re-aligned with the teams we collaborate with? What indicators tell us the re-alignment process is on track?

THRIVE/TRANSFORM/TRANSITION – As we move through cycles of EDIT, we should appreciate the process by pausing to savor (appreciate) our progress and assess whether we:

  • have found the right transformation formula and are ready to convert it into a personal habit or even to extend it as a best practice to those around us, or
  • need a few more rounds of iterative experimentation to hone the formula, or
  • have gotten as much as we can out of this focus and feel it is time to move onto a new focus.

At various points in the iteration process, we need to stop, take stock and make a judgment about the value and viability of the transformation formula we have developed through our rounds of CIAO. Does one of them seem promising enough to roll out on a broader basis? Does it make sense to integrate elements from a number of rounds and do another CIAO round before brooding the rollout? Or have we perhaps realized through the iteration process that the transformation opportunity statement as currently articulated is no longer powerful and believable enough to be promoted more broadly.

Depending on the answers to these questions, we might go back to the DEFINE or even the EXPLORE stage or we might choose to move on to a larger scale rollout of the transformation.

Since the world never stops changing, we never escape from the need to re-explore and re-evaluate how we can and want to transform the world and ourselves. This may be daunting, but it can also be liberating in that it opens our eyes to opportunities to create spaces for ‘an order of our own choosing’ within a greater order that we did not choose or even in the midst of chaotic periods when no one seems to have made any conscious choices at all.

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Note: T can be adjusted as need based on what has been learned in the EDI stages. Some candidate Ts include:

  • Transform
  • Transition
  • Translate
  • Transcend and
  • Threshold (credit to Pomona College philosophy professor Steve Erickson)

© Dana Cogan, 2024, all rights reserved.

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