Category Archives: embedding change

Four tasks of mourning, for #Brexit & more

If you’re stuck in a profound change process – where something you care about is lost permanently – you might try the four tasks of mourning: accept the reality; experience the pain; adjust to the new environment; and withdraw from the past, and put into the new without guilt.

Death and transition has been on my mind a lot recently, for a number of reasons. A former work colleague died before her time. The sister of a former colleague also. I felt grief from 2016’s shocking politics.

The Brexit vote killed number of things at once. A future being part of Europe that was so deeply engrained I didn’t realise it could be lost. My understanding of the values of my country, as the campaign stoked fear of the Other, which seemingly grew in people. My understanding of how well informed I was – I had missed just how much immigration had run ahead of people’s acceptance. And also of my hoped-for path to a sustainable future. I had been naive, believing that as crises hit us we would behave rationally for the collective long-term. Instead, it felt as though people – left behind by globalisation, ignored and derided by the London powers – had turned to anger and to protecting their own in a desperate kicking against the dicks.

The Trump election confirmed that last death, and more: that the transition to a sustainable footing will bring enough of the exiting power centres of business, investors and government along. (Also, the inauguration day was the 8th anniversary of my Mum’s death. While my friends had celebratory Champagne about Obama, I was mourning over red wine with my Dad.) Result: my hope for an insider-friendly and smooth-ish shift to a sustainable footing also died in 2016.

Now, grief is an odd thing, particular and personal. And yet, Kubler-Ross’ Stages (denial, anger and so on) has seeped into general knowledge as The Way Grieving Happens. There’s an expectation that you will be somewhere on that cycle. And in the way it’s usually spoken about there’s an implied passivity; you’re just waiting to go from step 3 to 4. But that wasn’t my experience.

When my Dad died in 2015 I read Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking. She points out that Kubler-Ross was originally studying the terminal patient, not the grieving family left behind. Her work had been extended into the grieving, and then into the change process more generally. That seems a stretch too far. Instead, Didion quoted the work of William Worden, which has four tasks of grief.

When I read them I felt a small fission. For one thing, these tasks give me – the griever – agency. I can try and do something, not just waiting. For another, the tasks themselves made a lot of sense to me. Here they are:

  1. Accept the reality of loss.
  2. Experience the pain of grief. 
  3. Adjust to environment where person is gone.
  4. Withdraw emotional energy from deceased and put into new social activity without guilt or uncertainty.

When my Dad died it helped that I had had the chance to touch his forehead before the funeral directors took the body. There was no doubting he was dead. Also, over the previous year he had withdrawn. There was not a routine of interactions, or regular memory triggers (the keys in the lock that widows say make them think their husband is back). So, adjusting to an environment where he was gone had, in effect, already happened for me.

Applying these tasks to Brexit show that there work to do, for me personally and for the country collectively. Through the second half of last year it was difficult to imagine what the environment would be after UK had gone from the EU. Would it be ‘soft’ or ‘hard, ‘complex’ or ‘clean’? Now we have the Prime Minister’s opening negotiating position and some of those questions are resolved. Plus Parliament has voted to give her authority to trigger Article 50. Whether you agree with it or not, in the next few weeks, the UK will trigger Article 50. Two years later, short something extraordinary, the UK will leave the EU.

There is now a concrete reality of loss to accept, and a status quo-to-come we can begin adjusting to. It is now possible, in my view without guilt, to withdraw emotional energy from the Remain campaign and put energy into what’s next.

For me this is working on the institutions that the UK (and the rest of the world) need to flourish in the 21st Century. Creating institutions that evoke the values I think we need – global, interconnected, fast-adapting, change-seeking As a country we need leaders, experiences and institutions that help many people to go through their Brexit mourning – at least, judging by the vitriol in my Facebook feed between Leavers and Remainers, and also at people who have reluctantly concluded we’re going Out so let’s make what we can of it (splitter!).

My experience last year was I could apply these tasks prospectively. As I was thinking about whether to leave Forum, I realised that something was holding me back: the career I had already imagined for myself in Forum into the far future. I had to go through the four tasks on that, or I would always have had might have beens. So, I spent a very difficult evening or 3 working through the tasks, mourning for the career I wasn’t going to have in Forum.

Others will have other thoughts. This may not work for you. But, if you’re stuck in a profound change process – where something you care about is lost permanently – you might try the four tasks of mourning.


Three classic measurement blunders

In a meeting today I started to talk about three classic blunders of measuring sustainability: start measuring years after you start executing; choose indicators without knowing how you will use the data; and, expect targets to be hit regardless of circumstance and punish individuals for missing goals. 

With apologies to The Princess Bride (if you don’t know what I mean, see the clip and then watch the film), here they are.

1. start measuring several years after you started executing
You’re busy. Someone senior has just signed off on that big thing you’ve been trying to get to happen for ages. You’ve got a target of helping X million people do Y. Let’s go and deliver!

A few years later things are going well, perhaps not everything you hoped but good enough. You realise you’re going to have to report progress – and then you realise you didn’t define what is activity on your part counts as ‘helping people do Y’. Also, you don’t have a baseline. You haven’t kept tabs on the costs and benefits (direct, indirect, tangible or intangible). Or any on-going information in a common format.

You have committed the first classic blunder of measurement – you didn’t set up a measurement system at the start.

The most obvious remedy is to set up a measurement system at the start. If you’ve already set off, it’s not to late to start setting up your measurement system.

2. choose indicators without knowing how you will use the data
You’re interested in outcomes. You’re not one of these process-guys who gets all nerdy and navel gazing. You put all your resource into measuring the results. Easy.


You’ve got very limited resource, and limited time to set up. So, you just pick the indicators which are already being collected, either in-house (often finance-related) or by someone else.

When you get the data it tells you that…well, the outcomes are behind what you want. But you don’t know why so you can’t do anything about it.

The second classic blunder is to choose indicators without thinking through how they will be used. In my view,  there are two basic uses of measurement data:

  • external disclosure for transparency and accountability, whether with formal regulators or the informal ‘civil regime’ of other stakeholders.
  • internal decision-making, to improve performance and set better goals.

On external disclosure there are guides, requirements and so on which constrain choice (I know this because I was on several panels that created the third generation of GRI). I’m more interested in metrics for internal decision-making because there are more choices (so people need more help) and because the purpose of the external disclosure is also to change internal decision-making.

My remedy is this: you start with a hypothesis which says (roughly) I do A, that drives B, which drives C (and so on until…) which drives the outcome I want. (In development  circles this is called a LogFrame – see the excellent Sustainability Indicators book for more.)

You then select input, process, output and outcome indicators which tell you about whether your hypothesis is actually happening, plus the outcome. This way you have the opportunity for two levels of learning:

  • Single-loop: improving performance based on your existing hypothesis. (“We can see does drive B etc, so let’s do more A.”)
  • Double-loop learning: improving your the hypothesis itself. (“Turns out A does drive B, but B doesn’t drive C so we’ll need to do something else.”)

As everyone knows, the map is not the territory, as anyone who just obeys their satnav will tell you. If you’re map is broadly right, you can drive according to the map. If you’re map is wrong you need a new map. And you need a measurement system which can help you tell if your map is good enough.

The measurement system, then, is a way of delivering organisational learning, the vital ability to adapt as things change.

3.  expect targets to be hit regardless of circumstance and punish individuals for missing goals
You are under pressure from your boss, and s/he from their boss, to hit that target. Five years ago you promised that you would help X million people do Y – and it looks like you’re going to be short on Y. So, you put pressure on the people who are supposed to deliver.

A couple of things can happen at this point. Even if you do hit Y – hurray! – there could well be a catch. Perhaps you’ve made a short-term gain but undermined the following years. Perhaps people have lied, or gamed the indicator.

Maybe the pressure you apply makes people think that the effort is not worth the candle – “it was always a stretch, I know what I’m being asked to do won’t work, that sustainability gets in the way of my real job anyway, I’ll just ignore that nagging person”.

Third blunder: using the target as a stick and then using the data to punish under-performance. Metrics can set up many unintended consequences and perverse incentives. If you put delivering the target as well above everything then you risk people lying and/or dis-engaging. As importantly, you miss using the chance to use the data as insight into why you are short – is it really about more effort? Or could there be some other reason.

The remedy? I think it has to be about a culture which values learning, where people are accountable for performance, including whether they are improving the hypothesis as they go. Interestingly, it turns out that quality is particularly important when you are doing something new: you need to reward people when their get better at forecasting what happens next (for more see the HBR classic ‘Building breakthrough businesses within established organisations’ (£)).