Navigating change can be tricky – it brings up a lot of emotions, worries, and decisions, and we’re not always sure where we stand. One of our primary needs when facing change is to be able to understand what it will mean for us.
It’s easy to get focused on negative aspects and neglect the potential positives. This is due to the way our brains are wired. But, we don’t have to be victim to their default wiring – the Four Doors of Change tool will help us explore multiple perspectives on the change, and to decide what actions we will take.
Navigating change is nothing new
Around 2,500 years ago, Heraclitus realised that the thing we can rely on is that things will change. Disruption and change is nothing new to the human species. And yet for some reason, we experience unpleasant feelings of surprise or shock when we experience it.
Why? It’s thanks to something I call “lazy-brain”.
While our brains are wired to enjoy novelty (think: fashion industry, travel, restaurants, music) they’re also wired to be lazy. That is, when we experience the same thing multiple times, certain connections in our brain get stronger so that we expend less energy when we experience that thing again.
This is why the first time you learn someone’s name, you have to put in some effort to remember it, but the fifth or tenth time you meet them, it floats right up as soon as you see their face. Imagine how tiring it would be if you always had to put in the same amount of effort to think of your parents’, partner’s or children’s names as you do for someone you’ve met only once! Lazy-brain frees up mental resources to focus on other things (like what we want to have for dinner!).
Lazy-brain is in operation for the vast majority of our day. Think of your work context: your brain is wired to expect certain conditions (e.g. sitting at the same desk, drinking the same coffee, talking to the same people about the same things, getting the same result from a standard process).
So when something disrupts those expectations, our brain suddenly has to deal with a new pathway and make new connections. Lazy-brain has to go on high alert, and it signals to our nervous system that we’re not dealing with the usual scenario. This can put us into fight-flight-freeze mode (I’ve written about how our nervous system operates in this post).
What does fight-flight-freeze mean for navigating change?
When we’re in fight-flight-freeze mode, we’re experiencing negative emotions, which tend to narrow our focus and attention. We can become conservative in our thinking, and less likely to generate creative ideas.
So, we need an approach to work with the negative emotions and narrowed thinking that we’re experiencing, and branch out into positive emotions and creative thinking. A great tool for helping us do this is the Four Doors of Change.
The Four Doors of Change tool for navigating change
I first came across this tool in a ‘Leading Change’ workshop run by the fabulous team at Blacksmith. It stuck in my mind as a fantastic tool for understanding the effects of a change, whether it’s something we’re contemplating introducing, or something that is imposed upon us. Understanding the change is the first step to navigating change well.
I’ve subsequently discovered that the Blacksmith team sourced it from Jason Clarke’s excellent TEDxPerth talk, posted way back in 2010.
I highly recommend that you set aside 20 minutes, make yourself a cuppa and enjoy the talk. Actually, it took me a lot longer than 20 minutes to watch it, because I had to keep pausing it to take notes!
The Four Doors of Change tool is covered from 7:46 to 9:15.
Jason Clarke: The 4 Doors of Change at TEDxPerth
Working with the Four Doors of Change tool
Define the change you're working with
To work with the Four Doors of Change tool, start by defining the situation that you’ll be focusing on. It could be a personal change that you’re facing, or an organisational change.
Get really clear on the parameters – what is in-scope and out-of-scope?
Define who is affected – even for personal change, others will be affected. For organsiational change, think about who will be affected directly and indirectly.
It can be helpful to do an ‘is/is not’ analysis – what is involved in the change? What is not? In terms of Jason Clarke’s presentation, this should help you distinguish phoney change from real change. If it looks like it might be phoney change, it’s probably time to stop and reassess!
Going it alone vs working it with others
For a personal change, you can work through the tool on your own, or with a coach or trusted friend. Having another person join you gives you an extra set of eyes – sometimes we’re so close to the situation that we can’t, to quote an old saying, see the wood for the trees.
For an organisational change, you might work through the tool alone at first to get your head around the change you’re contemplating. But it really comes into its own when you use it with the people who will be navigating the change with you. So, you might run through it on your own first, then with leaders involved with the change, then with the teams involved in the change. Each layer will give you a new perspective and ideas for how to make the most of the change opportunity.
What are the Four Doors?
The tool gives us a way of analysing the change in terms of what we can and can’t do, before and after the change. The 4 doors of change are things that we:
- Could do before the change and still can do after the change
- Couldn’t do before and still can’t do after
- Could do before and can’t do after
- Couldn’t do before and can do after
The Four Doors explained
We’ll work through each of the 4 doors of change, using the example of shifting house to one that gives you a spare bedroom, but is further away from work.
Door One: what we could do or did have before the change that we still can do or have after the change
This is everything that the change will not affect. We’re not thinking about whether we like or dislike these things, just what doesn’t alter with the change. This is the first door of “status quo”.
Things that you were able to do while living in your old home and you can still do living in your new home include:
- Cook meals
- Clean the house
- Entertain friends and family
- Take a nap
- Watch TV
- Make the bed
- Go out for the evening
- Do the washing
Door Two: what we couldn't do or didn't have before that we still can't do or have after the change
We’re still working with things that the change will not affect. Again, it’s not whether we like or dislike these things, it’s simply what will remain the same. This is the second door of “status quo”.
This could include:
- Avoid paying tax (I’m assuming you’re a law-abiding citizen!)
- Cheat death
- Get rid of all your possessions
- Rob a bank (again with the law-abiding citizen thing)
- Get younger
- Live for free
- Avoid housework
- Become a nomad
- Quit your job
- Say anything you want to anyone at any time
Door Three: what we could do or had before but we can't do or won't have after the change
This is what we lose through making the change. This can be things you like or dislike. So you might feel grief at losing what you like, and joy at losing what you dislike. Either way, this is the door of “let it go”.
Some aspects could be:
- Get to work quickly (you’ve shifted further away)
- An excuse to decline having guests to stay (you can no longer say “sorry, we don’t have a spare room”!)
- Go to your “local” pub/restaurant/café on your way to/from work (you might have shifted too far from it and need to find a new local)
- Save/spend money (the larger house might cost more in rent/mortgage, and you might spend more on commuting)
Door Four: what we couldn't do or have before the change and we can do or have after the change
This is what we gain from making the change. Again, it can be things you like or dislike, but the balance will usually tip towards things that you like and value. If it doesn’t, you might need to reassess the change! This is the door of opportunity, the “go for it” door. Each element we identify here can create a foundation of possibility for making a positive difference
Some of the new things you get or can now do could be:
- A longer commute creates more time to listen to your favourite music, podcast or radio station
- The opportunity to host overnight guests
- Potential additional income from the spare room
- Opening your home to an exchange student or foster child
- A space to work from home or spread out your hobbies
- Seeing your surroundings from a new perspective
- Trying a new pub/restaurant/café that’s on your new commute or near your new home
- Meeting new neighbours and joining a new community
The Four Doors in action
In March 2021, New Zealand went back into snap lockdown. It’s not the kind of change anyone wanted to face. And we know that imposed change is much harder to navigate than when we have a choice in the change. I, like so many others, woke on the first day of the new lockdown feeling rather unsettled, with a side of ‘coronavirus fatigue‘.
So I sat down and wrote up a Four Doors of Change sheet, because I knew it would help me in navigating the inevitable change and disruption. I’ve blurred the writing, because the specifics of what I wrote isn’t important, but the proportions in the columns is. I have them in a slightly different order than above (the coffee hadn’t kicked in when I sat down to write!). My columns are in the order of Doors 1, 3, 2, 4.
The Four Doors proportion pattern
This Four Doors sheet fits a pretty common pattern in my experience. The “status quo” doors (which are columns 1 and 3 on my sheet) have much more content than the “let it go” or “go for it” doors (columns 2 and 4 on my sheet). That is, what stays the same after the change is almost always much, much greater than what will be different. We often don’t notice this, because our heads fill up with what we are losing and the new things we will have to deal with.
My "status quo" items
I thought of nearly 50 things that I could do before lockdown, and could still do during lockdown. And I thought of 11 things I couldn’t do before lockdown and still couldn’t do during the lockdown. So that’s around 60 things that aren’t changing.
My "let it go" items
I thought of five things I could do before lockdown but couldn’t do during it. And I had realised several days before the lockdown was announced that I didn’t actually want to do one thing, so it didn’t feel like a loss. In fact, lockdown gave me a good reason to take it off my list.
Then, I identified alternative ways to achieve two of the items during lockdown, in a modified manner. The remaining two had to wait until restrictions were lifted. I needed to to make my peace with those two remaining things.
My "go for it" items
When it came to identifying things I could do during lockdown I couldn’t before, I initially struggled. Lockdown really does feel like options are being taken away rather than added. Then I realised there are things about the lockdown experience that are within my control. When we aren’t in lockdown, those things don’t exist, so I couldn’t do them before the lockdown. But now that lockdown is here, I can choose how to navigate those aspects. I wrote down three things here. So, adding that to the five things I could do before and couldn’t do during lockdown gave me a total of 8 changes to deal with.
So all up, 8 differences and 60 things that stayed the same. That meant that for every 2 changes I had to navigate, I had 15 things that remained constant. Thinking about it in those terms started to reduce the anxiety around the change, and gave me a good idea of several areas I could focus on while the lockdown unfolded.
Change is hard, especially when it’s imposed on us. But whether we choose the change or not, we still have to navigate through loss, gain and a huge number of things that stay the same.
Writing up a Four Doors sheet and seeing it all laid out in front of us can help us to reality-check our thinking, especially if we’re in a tailspin about the change.
Just seeing how much will stay the same kick-starts the soothing of our nervous system, as we recognise that not everything is shifting, and there’s lots we can still rely on.
It can also provide us with insight into areas that we can take action to make the most of the opportunities presented by the change.
I’ve created a template for the Four Doors of Change model. Get instant access to your copy by filling out the form on the right. I’d love to hear how you get on with the exercise – feel free to share in the comments, or reply to the email you receive with the template. I read every email.