The Trapeze Theory of Change – Great Dashboards Don’t Help if Nothing Changes

Consulting Processes

As readers of Critical to Success I’m going to assume you are interested in improving your own performance and productivity and that of your organization. To do that you usually have to help people and cultures improve their performance and that is difficult. CHANGE IS DIFFICULT. Thankfully, there are some Leadership Tools that help. This one helps with individuals, teams, organizations, and even families. This Leadership Tool is the,

Trapeze Theory of Change

It doesn’t matter whether you are a CEO, manager, team lead, individual, or parent with kids. The TRAPEZE THEORY OF CHANGE helps us help ourselves and others make change. (I think I first wrote this metaphor when Windows came on a stack of diskettes about a foot high. If anyone has seen it elsewhere, please let me know.)

The following excerpts are from the book, Connect: How to Use Data and Experience Marketing to Create Lifetime Customers, by Lars Petersen, Ron Person (me), and Christopher Nash, and published by John Wiley Press. The book describes how everyday marketers can use the internet to create great customer experiences and give individuals information and experiences that are relevant to them. To do that a lot of marketing must change – I’m talking about change in people, processes, skills, and technology.

I hope you enjoy this metaphor and please, think about using it the next time you see someone who is teetering on the edge of change.


Chapter 5 (excerpts): Making It Happen!

“The brick walls are there for a reason. The brick walls are not there to keep us out. The brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something.”

– Randy Pausch, The Last Lecture

We’ve all heard the mantra, “What gets measured, gets managed.” It sounds so simple to manage a change project. The problem is that just because you’re managing something doesn’t mean it will happen. There’s a lot that needs to be coordinated and changed. There’s a lot of inertia. And there’s a lot of attitude.

“The Trapeze Theory” of change is a method I have used to help corporations switch to new computer systems. I might have invented it, but I’ve been using it for so long that I don’t remember where the idea came from. I do remember a paper I wrote for Microsoft that was dated 1989 describing the “Trapeze” as a way to get big corporations to move from MS-DOS and character-based screens to Windows.

The Trapeze Theory gives people a solid foundation of confidence, doesn’t disrupt your organization as much as other methods, and has a high success rate. It’s based on good, humane management skills.

The “Trapeze Model of Organizational Change”

For an individual in an organization, cultural change is like taking that first leap from a platform to catch a swinging trapeze. There’s fear of the unknown, the gathering of energy to overcome inertia, and the uncertainty of outcome. Even with all the negatives, change does happen – the fear is balanced by the thrill of learning new skills and the potential for applause and recognition.

As an executive or manager in marketing we need to find ways to increase our people’s chances of making that leap, catching a swinging trapeze and timing the landing on a new platform. The more successfully we can help our people make this transition the more successful we will be.

Any marketing organization that faces the New Marketing Mandate to switch into data-driven marketing will face some unease and inertia. It is just as important for you as a manager to create a plan to manage the people and process changes as it is to manage the technology changes. We feel a combination of Kotter’s steps at the highest level and the Trapeze Model at the support level is the best way to help your people adapt and feel good about the change.

Where We Are… …Mid-Air… Where We Want to Be…
How do we motivate them to leave their comfort zone? How do we make sure they fly through the transition? How do we make sure they land safely and stay there?
Acknowledge the Fear – Almost everyone fears their first solo. Let them know that is normal. Catcher (mentor) – Have someone experienced ready to catch them mid-air Have a Catcher – have someone grab their hand when they land to help them keep their balance
Training – Make sure they have practiced in realistic situations so they have confidence they can do it. Stretch – Let people know they may have to stretch to meet their goals during the transition. Applause – make sure the applause is motivating. Some like to hear it privately, others like it loud and public.
Increase their Strength – If they aren’t strong enough, build them up. Safety Harness – A practice harness lets people take a risk. Larger Platform – make the new platform easier to land on and stay on
Smaller Platform – Reduce support for the old way. If the old ways take more work and are riskier than the new there’s less reason to stay. Decrease the Height – reduce the danger of making a mistake. Tell the Stories – Share the “positive” stories so others learn from another’s experience.
Fire – Light a fire so it is uncomfortable or riskier to stay on the old platform. Applause – make sure they can hear the applause for those who have reached the other side. Fix Mistakes – when someone stumbles, adapt the training or fix the system so it doesn’t happen again.
Recognize Different Types – Some people like constant change, others like occasional change, and still others like no change. Can you find a place for multiple types? Net – Don’t let a mistake be fatal. Keep Practicing – Don’t stop. After landing, take a breath to recover then, while the exhilaration is still there, do it again.
Give Them a Ladder Down and Out – Some people would rather leave than change. Make it easy and gracious for them to leave without demotivating others. Get Back On – If someone falls, help them get back up so they can do it the right way before negative memories or habits set it. Reinforce the New Platform – make the new platform a more inviting place to be than the old.

In the situation of helping your marketing organization move to a higher level of maturity you can look at the Trapeze Model to understand where people might have fear of the unknown, where they need more time or practice, where they need training and instructions. Marketers may want to go back to the old platform, their old way of doing things. That’s when managers need to use discipline and coaching skills to reinforce the new direction. Use the Trapeze Model to help executives, managers and all marketers understand they will be going through a time of change.