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The High Diving Board Problem (Why Change is Hard)

Change involves navigating our expectations and perceptions then taking action. It might also involve getting pushed from those behind you.

Talking about change, wanting change, and planning for change is not the same as actual change. Organizations and individuals alike will invest considerable time, energy, and money on efforts to envision change only to find themselves backing away from taking that final step. The reasons are many. Fear is a big one, but so is the gap between what we perceive (and when) and how we manage that in those moments when we need to act.

This is the High Diving Board problem.

It’s summertime. It’s hot and everyone is headed to the pool. For kids, one of the biggest draws — and most ominous fears — is the diving board. Consider a kid who summons the courage to climb the high diving board with the intent to jump for the first time. Some kids will climb up to the ladder, look down and leap while others might get up there, pause, struggle, and choose to climb back down the ladder, giving up.

If there are no other kids or people wanting to use the diving board the choice to abandon the dive might be slightly embarrassing, but relatively easy. However, if there are already two or three kids on the ladder behind them waiting for their turn, the choice to dive or not dive changes takes on a different meaning. Backing down becomes much more difficult.

In this scenario, one kid made a plan, took a risk, and succeeded in achieving her goal. The other kid made a plan, took a risk, and failed. Maybe another day.

What happens in the scenario when the choice is to abandon the dive only to find that the way out is blocked because of kids lined up on the ladder behind them?

This is a big part of what I call the High Diving Board Problem and it is found in change efforts everywhere. Seeing it and understanding it can make a big difference in how we design for change.

The High Diving Board Problem

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The High Diving Board Problem presents us with a scenario that at first seems simple, but underneath the surface illustrates enormous challenges for organizations seeking to innovate. It is complex because it involves risk, perceptions, hope, and both individual and social factors that combine together in a situation that is dynamic, distorted, and also very real.

Let’s start with risk and perception.

It is one thing to be brave in the abstract, it’s another when you’re faced with a challenge right in front of you and is more than you expected when you first decided to take it on. Almost everyone who’s attempted to jump off a high diving board for the first time says the same thing when they get out of the pool: “It looks a lot higher from up there (on the diving board) that it does down here (on the pool deck).”

It’s almost as if someone did a bait-and-switch to the person climbing the ladder and replaced a the diving board with a SUPER high diving board.

There are many reasons for this, but one of them is about perception AND real distances. When you look down into the pool from a diving board you are looking both at the surface distance (the distance from the board to the water) and the floor distance (the distance from the board to the base of the pool). You are seeing two images at the same time and one distance might make us feel like we’re jumping at twice the height we first imagined.

Both distances are real. Yet, the way we perceive these distances is distorted both from the ground and from the diving board. These same kinds of distortions greet us when we try to innovate or make plans for change.

Distorted perceptions and risk

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When a kid decides to (literally!) take the plunge and head to the high diving board they do so based on a distorted perception and the risk based on that perception. The first distortion is the perception of height from the ground. The second distortion is created by seeing both the distance to the water and to the bottom of the pool at the same time. (See this article for a great summary of research on how we perceive object sizes through a lens of distortion and relativism (PDF)).

Yet, the diver only realizes this distortion when they are at the top of the ladder and, in the case where there are others behind them, faced with the task of jumping in spite of what they perceived.

Some will jump anyway. Others will try to climb back down.

But what about those kids who get to the top, decide they don’t want to jump, yet find a row of kids right behind them wanting to dive?

Traffic on (the) board

When you’re boxed in on the top of the diving board the choice to abandon the dive is filled with new risks. There is the heightened embarrassment associated with having all these kids climb back down (if they can) and the associated attention that brings. Then there is the risk that you’ll have to leap when you’re not ready or wanting to.

A couple of different results might come of that. One is that you jump against your will and, barring injury, choose to never put yourself in that situation again. A second is that you jump and find that it wasn’t so bad. Maybe that pressure from those behind you was just what you needed to literally take the plunge.

This situation — the perceptions, risks, social pressures, and outcomes — are all parallel to the experience of innovating in an organization. From the high diving board (high risk, high visibility, unknown parameters) to the changing risk assessment (e.g, more or different risk than expected, changing perceptions, distortions in what you can see and perceive), these are the things that human beings recoil from in nearly every other situation so why would this be different?

Organizations (and individuals) fail to deliver on their change plans consistently for this reason.

We can take lessons from our summertime trip to the pool and input them into our strategic initiatives to change.

Innovation lessons from the pool

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It’s easy to get into the shallow end of the pool. Just climb down the ladder (like the picture above) and basically replicate what you would do on the pool deck, except in water. Diving in means getting into a radical change with radical conditions with height, jumping, and the quick plunge into the water.

While many innovation analogies can be drawn from the idea of a slow entry into the pool and wading slowly to the deep end, let’s focus on diving.

The Diving Board Problem for organizations requires matching the expectations of risk with the perceptions of those risk and how they change. The most salient example is when an organization invests in a research, design, and planning process for a new program, idea, or process only to abandon its implementation when it was time to launch because the perception of risk is different.

It’s this difference that makes a difference. The absolute distance from the top of the diving board to the surface of the pool is no different from the time a kid decides to climb the ladder to the moment they leave the diving board. The difference is that the perception of this distance is just different.

When it’s different, it feels riskier. The risk of not doing something can be enormous, but it’s a safer feeling option because it largely stays the same (or at least feels like it does).

The truth is that diving increases the risk of injury. Not diving and just swimming increases the risk of drowning. Neither are 100% safe. The same is true for innovation. But if we don’t ever get into the pool, we can guarantee that we won’t succeed.

How do we design for success in these situations?

  1. Prepare ourselves for the uncertainty of innovation. Recognize that things will seem more daunting when we actually put ourselves in the position to innovate. We are climbing the ladder and when we get to the top, we will see things differently. By priming ourselves to expect this, we are better able to handle it when we get there. Prime your innovation team for this reality in advance. This can also mean being each others’ cheerleader and support.
  2. Experience reduces the effect of uncertainty. Kids are scared when they first get on to the diving board. The more times they do it, the less they get scared of the dive and the more they get energized by the various dives they can do. It’s the same thing for innovators.
  3. Shift focus from risk to performance. The more often you make the attempt, the less risky it feels and the more we can focus our energy on the performance. Expert divers are focused on what they do on the diving board and in the dive, not the height or social situation around the diving board. The more comfortable we get with doing innovation the better prepared we are to focus on what we do and what it achieves and less about what kind of risks we’re taking.
  4. Harness the power of traffic. Having traffic behind you is a powerful motivator to execute. This can be done by design. By bringing others along and aligning a system of activities that are dependent on one another for success we can instill the power of positive social or organizational pressure to ensure we deliver. One of the biggest reasons that organizational change initiatives are allowed to die on the launchpad is that there is nothing reliant on its success. If you’re blocking the other kids from diving and can’t get down, there’s only one real option: act.
  5. Create stories. Evaluation is a means to record what was done and to what effect. By documenting change efforts systematically by doing evaluation research on your work you begin to understand all the effort that goes into change, provide data that can be used to assess the success or failure of that effort, and make adjustments. It also creates the stories of change that honour the work you did. It allows you to tell others (and yourself) what you did.
  6. Share stories. One way to prime ourselves for the challenge of innovating is to share the stories of our work. Tell our peers about how the perceptions are different ‘up there on the diving board’ than they are down on the pool deck and that it is OK. The more we share with our peers and remove the illusions of innovation, the greater we normalize the process and learn from each other. Innovation is about doing something new, what we can do by sharing stories about it make it seem familiar.

Innovation is more challenging than we expect and knowing that in advance will make it far better and more likely that, when it’s our turn to walk to the end of that diving board, we will jump into it.

If we are prepared for change we will better meet it when it comes. It will also help us better embrace these changes and make our own change in the process.

A common end to the story of the kid who dives off the diving board for the first time is that they get out of the pool and want to do it again. The success of overcoming fears and the exhilaration of the dive is one of the best drivers of future likelihood of diving again. The same goes for us and our innovations.

Get on the board.

Photos by Markus Spiske on Unsplash, Jorge Mallo on Unsplash, Mario Gogh on Unsplash, and MILKOVÍ on Unsplash ** Thank you to all these generous and talented creators for making these available to publishers like me.

*** This is an expanded and edited version of an original that was published on Censemaking.

Designer, evaluator, educator, & psychologist supporting people in making positive change, by design. Principal @censeltd @censeacademy

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