Four Elements of Successful Change

Passover 2019
By Maya Bernstein

Is there a recipe for change? A pinch of this, a cup of that, a dash of this, a spoon of that, bake at this temperature for that amount of time and, voila, a successful change process? Alas, we know it is much more complex. Yet the well-known but deceptively simple “Mah Nishtanah” text, traditionally chanted by a young child at the beginning of the Seder, might actually be as close to a recipe as we can get. And it’s even kosher for Passover…

“Mah Nishtana Halayla Hazeh Mikol Haleilot?” “How is this night different from all other nights?”

How might we make tonight – and all following nights – different from the nights that have come before them? In other words – what are the ingredients in a recipe for lasting change? How do we break our patterns, break from what is not working, and move into a new reality? This is the primary question of Mah Nishtana – what elements are necessary to allow change to happen, to break from the pattern of “all other nights” and enter a new reality, “this night?”

Let’s consider the four aspects that this text frames as “different from all other nights” as metaphors for the ingredients crucial to change, and, especially, to adaptive change – when we are trying to change core values, or when we are challenging people’s identity, and sense of self.

I. Chametz U’Matza Leavened Bread vs Matza: To create real change, we must first be fully honest in diagnosing our current reality. If change involves moving ourselves and others from the current reality to our aspirations for ourselves and our communities, we must first look closely at that reality. And often, when we diagnose our realities, we “puff them up” – we “chametzify” them. We pretend things are better than they are. We don’t look past the chametz at the core, at the bare bones. To make change, we need to find the matzah of our current reality. We need to name and own the truth of where our reality conflicts with our hopes and desires for something greater.

II. She’ar Yerakot/Marror Assorted Vegetables vs Marror: Change has two components. You can think about change as an equation with the elements of Loss and Gain. When we assume that the gain in a change process will outweigh the loss, we are willing to change. But there is always an aspect of loss. Sometimes that loss is a core value that we hold dear. Or a critical piece of our identity. Or an affiliation with a movement. Or actual people or ideas we must be willing to leave behind when we cross into our aspirational state. To make real, lasting change, we need to acknowledge the loss. We need to taste that marror. We can’t avoid it. We must manage the grief that change evokes. Only in eating the marror can we move towards the sweetness of what we hope to gain from the change.

III. Ein Anu Matbilin Afilu Pa’am Echat/Sh’tei Pe’amim We Don’t Dip At All vs Dipping Twice: Change involves multiple experiments. In our ideal world, we see a problem, and we don’t have to dip into it at all. We can just solve it. We can fix it and move on. Technical problems are often like that. The problem is clear, the solution is clear, and we bring our authority and expertise to solve the problem and move on. These kinds of problems don’t demand dipping. But adaptive change, change where we struggle to agree on the framing of the problem, where the solution is murky, where we are in emotional territory, the territory of identity and values, of beliefs and passions, this kind of change process requires that we dip in, again and again. If we wish to succeed in navigating complex change, we must be willing to try, analyze how the system reacts, and then try again. And again. We must keep dipping in. This is messy work. We will drip onto the tablecloths. We will leave stains. Real change requires dipping, and the dripping that ensues.

IV. Yoshvin u Mesubin/ Kulanu Mesubin Sitting Upright vs Leaning: Finally, we cannot lead alone. Change requires partnerships. When we sit straight, we carry our own weight. We get all the credit. We hold ourselves upright. When we lean, we require the weight and support of others. We are not in it alone. We are part of something greater than ourselves. Change work requires support. We need to protect ourselves, take care of ourselves, and we need to find allies and confidantes, so that we don’t march into the sea alone. Change requires leaning.

With blessings for the courage to create the change you wish to see – in yourself, in your community, in your work, in the world – Happy Passover!

Maya Bernstein teaches, facilitates, consults, and writes about change, leadership and innovation.