Navigating change: The Four Doors of Change

Navigating change: The Four Doors of Change

Reading Time: 8 minutes

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.

"Change is the only constant in life" - Heraclitus

Around 2,500 years ago, Heraclitus wrote that change is the only constant in life. So 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.

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

I first came across this tool in a ‘Leading Change’ workshop run by the fabulous team at Blacksmith. I’ve subsequently discovered that they 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 tool is covered from 7:46 to 9:15.

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 or 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.

Introducing 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 ‘Four Doors” are:

  1. What we could do before the change and still can do after the change
  2. What we couldn’t do before and still can’t do after
  3. What we could do before and can’t do after
  4. What we couldn’t do before and can do after
Table showing Four Doors of Change
The Four Doors of Change, adapted from Jason Clarke's talk at TEDxPerth

The Four Doors explained

We’ll work through each of the four doors, 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:

  • Sleep
  • 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
  • Relax

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 assumping 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)
  • Refuse to have guests stay (the “no spare room” excuse has gone)
  • Go to your “local” pub/restaurant/cafe 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’ll probably 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 reasses the change! This is the door of opportunity, the “go for it” door.

Some of the new things you get or can now do could be:

  • A longer commute
  • Time and space to yourself on the commute
  • The opportunity to host overnight guests
  • Potential additional income from the spare room
  • Open your home to an exchange student or foster child
  • A space to work from home or spread out your hobbies
  • See your surroundings from a new perspective
  • Try a new pub/restaurant/cafe that’s on your new commute

The Four Doors in action

New Zealand just went back into snap lockdown. It’s not the kind of change anyone wants 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 new lockdown feeling unsettled and a touch of ‘coronavirus fatigue‘.

So I sat down and wrote up a Four Doors of Change sheet to help me navigate the next few weeks of 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.

An example of the Four Doors of Change
My Four Doors of Change for navigating the current snap lockdown

The proportion pattern

This Four Doors sheet fits a pretty common pattern – 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 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 can still do during lockdown. And I thought of 11 things I couldn’t do before lockdown and still can’t do now. 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 can’t do during it. I had realised three days ago, well before the lockdown was announced, that I didn’t want to do one of those, so it doesn’t feel like a loss. Of the others, I’ve identified alternative ways to achieve two of them. The remaining two will have to wait, and so I know I need to make my peace with those things.

My "go for it" items

When it came to identifying things I can do now that 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 can’t do now, that’s 8 changes to deal with.

The proportion

So all up, 8 differences and 60 things that stay the same. That means that for every 2 changes I have to navigate, I’ve got 15 things that remain 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 can focus on while lockdown unfolds.

In conclusion

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 some 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.

Sign up to download your copy of the Four Doors of Change template and you'll also get access to my newsletter, which is full of information that makes the "human stuff" a little easier to get right.

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Posted by Daria Williamson in Change Management, How-to, Leadership, 0 comments
Kindness: a better business strategy

Kindness: a better business strategy

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Kindness. It’s a scorned, if not outright rejected concept in business – it’s too soft, too weak. We can’t be kind, because to be in business is to be tough, competitive, strong. Logic and rationality rule the roost. We don’t do feelings or soft, fluffy stuff. We’re here to do the serious stuff of business; please leave your kindness at the door.

Kindness isn't weakness

But kindness isn’t a soft, fluffy feeling – it’s a philosophy that holds individual human dignity as the ultimate value. It sees that dignity as more important than power games, point-scoring, and numbers on a spreadsheet. It’s much, much harder than the usual “hard-headed” business approach. And it is actually a solid business strategy for getting the best out of your people, making sure you have the right people on your team, and serving your customers well.

And it isn’t weakness, not by any means. Sometimes the kindest thing you can do, in business and life, is to have courageous conversations that put everything on the line. Whether that’s with an under-performing employee, a high-potential team member, or someone who just isn’t fitting in, kindness can help individuals and organisations to flourish. Brené Brown has written excellently on the subject of “Clear is kind. Unclear is unkind.” I highly recommend her book Dare to Lead; it’s on regular rotation in my reading list.

Kind honesty

Being kindly honest with someone is really, really hard. It can feel like we’re being downright cruel when we are in the middle of that conversation and see the pain and disappointment in the other person’s eyes. Of course, we need to give the feedback with empathy and compassion, but we can’t just avoid having the conversation because we don’t like how it will make us feel.

Allowing someone to fail by not giving clear feedback on expectations and performance is a deep unkindness. No one wants to realise that other people think we are incompetent, a burden, or dragging others down, but no one had the guts to tell us we weren’t meeting the mark. This is the Golden Rule at work: how we want to be treated is how we should treat others.

Kind challenges

Unkindness isn’t just about avoiding tough conversations with underperformers; it’s also unkind not to challenge your star employees. We might worry that if we let them spread their wings, they’ll fly away from us, or that other employees will act up out of jealousy (requiring their own courageous conversations).

But bringing everyone down to the lowest common denominator is unkind to those who want to excel and it’s unkind to your customers and industry too. Who knows what great improvements a high-potential employee could create, if you allowed them to follow their instincts, supported them with a budget, permission to experiment, make mistakes and discover new approaches, and surrounded them with people who will challenge, coach, and inspire them?

Kind exits

Sometimes, kindness is allowing, even encouraging, someone to leave a role or organisation that doesn’t “fit” them. If you can’t provide them with conditions to flourish, why not allow them to look for a place that can? Why would you want to keep someone around who isn’t enjoying working in your team or organisation? Trying to stay below an arbitrary turnover target or avoid hard questions about why you let a good employee leave aren’t good reasons to try to hold someone back in a place where they’re miserable.

Who knows what could happen if you give someone your blessing to find a new home for their talents? It’s a very small world: you might encounter them again in the future, as an employee, boss, or customer. Wouldn’t it be great to know you left things on good terms? Or maybe they’ll go on to revolutionise the industry, or they’ll remember the good boss who helped them find a path that better suited them, and will do the same for others? That’s how kindness multiplies.

Kindness to self

And while we’re talking about kindness, let’s be kind to ourselves too. Most of us feel like we’re making things up as we go – and we regularly face new situations (remember Alert Level 4 lockdown, anyone?!). It’s OK not to know the answers. And it’s even more OK to admit that to your team, your colleagues and your boss – people usually appreciate honesty. (And if you’re working with people who aren’t OK with you not knowing the all the answers, every time, then you might want to find a kinder place to work!)

How will you apply kindness today?

It’s all well and good to read about how kindness can help us. But words on a screen don’t change the world – taking action does!

Commit to a single act of kindness today. It doesn’t have to be earth-shattering – when a sculptor wants to break off a section of rock, they don’t aim one mighty blow, but deliver a series of gentle taps in just the right place. The same goes for kindness – many, small acts of deliberate kindness will nudge your team, your organisation and the world in the desired direction. All you have to do is start.

Posted by Daria Williamson in Leadership, Organisational Culture, Workplace, 0 comments
Leadership toolbox: how to use change stories to transform your reality

Leadership toolbox: how to use change stories to transform your reality

Reading Time: 6 minutes

Our change stories can make or break us as we navigate change. I’ve written before about how we humans are sense-making machines – essentially, we need to have a story that explains what we are experiencing. And if what is happening doesn’t come with a story that makes sense to us, we’ll make up one that does.

I think it’s fair to say that 2020 is the year of navigating change, whether or not we are willing participants in those changes! Which makes now a great time to think about the stories we are hearing, telling ourselves, and sharing with others.

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Posted by Daria Williamson in How-to, Leadership, 0 comments
How-to: be a great leader during a crisis

How-to: be a great leader during a crisis

Reading Time: 9 minutes

Leadership is a challenging endeavour at the best of times. You’re juggling multiple streams of information, competing goals, shifting targets, and the glorious messiness that comes from being a human working with other humans. Then throw a crisis situation into the mix – that’s a tough day at the office!

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Posted by Daria Williamson in How-to, 0 comments
Mindset: how to transform your life

Mindset: how to transform your life

Reading Time: 7 minutes

Over the course of our lives, we develop and adopt beliefs about ourselves and how the world works. The word “mindset” is the collective name for these beliefs.

Our mindset guides our choices, behaviours, decisions, and how we view the world. If you’ve ever walked away from a conversation thinking “How on earth could they think that?!”, chances are you were talking to someone who is operating from a completely different mindset to you.

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Posted by Daria Williamson in General, How-to, 1 comment
Leadership Toolbox: how to create psychological safety at work

Leadership Toolbox: how to create psychological safety at work

Reading Time: 5 minutes

Have you ever wondered why some teams thrive in difficult times? They trust one another, freely share knowledge, admit mistakes and generate creative and innovative ideas at the drop of a hat.

Two brown goats butting heads
Image source: Pexels

Others spend their time covering up mistakes, concealing information from bosses and colleagues, and pretending they know everything. Then they wonder why they don’t get the results they want. They are characterised by cut-throat competition, where only the strongest can survive.

Psychological safety is a key factor in the way that teams work together and produce results. This post explains the concept of psychological safety, its benefits, and how to go about developing it with the teams you work in and lead.

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Posted by Daria Williamson in Leadership, 1 comment
Leadership toolbox: how to build self-awareness

Leadership toolbox: how to build self-awareness

Reading Time: 8 minutes

Self-awareness is a key life and leadership skill. At its most basic level, self-awareness is about developing your knowledge and understanding of yourself, and being able to access that knowledge and understanding in real-time to help you better navigate your life.

Its benefits include:

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Posted by Daria Williamson in Development, Leadership, 2 comments
Leadership Toolbox: getting to grips with empathy

Leadership Toolbox: getting to grips with empathy

Reading Time: 5 minutes

In my first Leadership Toolbox post, I talked about the importance of self-care for leaders. Self-care involves turning our attention inward, to manage our own wellbeing.

In this post, I’ll be talking about the tool of empathy, which helps us turn our attention outward, to understand and connect with those around us. In a future post, I’ll share tips for how to increase your levels of empathy, and how to apply empathy “in the wild”, to grow your relationships and increase your effectiveness as a communicator and leader.

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Posted by Daria Williamson in Leadership, 3 comments
Leadership Toolbox: what we need to know for living with complexity

Leadership Toolbox: what we need to know for living with complexity

Reading Time: 13 minutes

There’s a lot going on in the world right now. We are seeing a massive global response to the COVID-19 virus, the likes of which we don’t often see. Things are changing daily, if not hourly, as a result of both the spread of the coronavirus and national and local responses to the evolving situation.

In some ways, what is happening with coronavirus is a perfect example of the kind of complex world in which we now live, where the goalposts are constantly shifting, threats seem to be escalating on an hourly basis, and no one really knows what will happen next. This complexity can make it feel like we’re fighting battles every day, leaving us feeling exhausted and pushing us away from creativity and connection.

So, how do we make sense of the world around us, and navigate complexity while keeping ourselves mentally and physically healthy, and ready to do good work? In this article, I share some knowledge and resources that have helped me at different times – and I’m sure something here will help you too!

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Posted by Daria Williamson in Leadership, 0 comments
Leadership Toolbox: how to create a self-care plan

Leadership Toolbox: how to create a self-care plan

Reading Time: 7 minutes

As leaders, we need a comprehensive toolbox to succeed in our roles. I’ll be publishing a series of posts on leadership tools in coming months, so keep an eye out! I am starting this series with self-care because I believe it is the single most important tool for our toolbox.

It may feel like an entirely “selfish” practice because we are turning our energy towards ourselves, rather than directly serving those we lead. But there’s a reason that airline safety videos tell you to put your own oxygen mask on before helping others. A good self-care practice supports our wellbeing, allowing us to live a more awesome life, doing all the great things we dream of, and enjoying ourselves for many years to come.

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Posted by Daria Williamson in Leadership, 6 comments