Unlocking the black box of change
Why do some people manage change well while others get stuck and overwhelmed? Research has identified patterns and approaches that we can all use to do it better.
Setlogane Manchidi grew up in what he describes as “a dusty rural village” in Limpopo, living in three mud huts with his brother, his cousin and his grandmother. His mother worked as a domestic worker in Johannesburg. “That would turn out to be a blessing in disguise,” because her employer, Mrs Sussman, insisted that he and his brother visit their mother during the longer school holidays. On one such visit, Mrs Sussman took them to the cinema.
“We were seated in better chairs than these!” he exclaims, dismissing the big office chairs in the sound studio where we record our podcast. “It didn’t feel as if I was watching a movie, it felt like I was part of the movie.” His voice drops with something like awe at the memory. “That was my aha moment. That was when I concluded, this is the life I want for myself and for my children.”
Returning home, he started studying with ferocious focus. Saturdays and Sundays would find him at school, working away. It got him the matric results he wanted, but then what? There was no money for further study.
Even so, he applied and was accepted at UCT. The university started sending promotional material, further firing up his dream. He needed a bursary. He wrote dozens of applications and received dozens of replies starting with “We regret to inform you…” Until he opened a brown envelope from bursary organisation StudyTrust, offering R6000.
It was too little, but he talked his way past Mrs Jacobs at the UCT financial office: “I could not go back! I had too much to lose.” Four years later he left with an Honours degree in Social Work, cum laude. Today he is head of CSI at Investec, with a master’s degree in business management. He personally struck the first blow to demolish the mud huts of his childhood and replace them with a solidly built home.
What made this journey possible? How did he manage to overcome all the obstacles and never give up? “Mrs Jacobs saw written on my forehead, ‘Perseverance’,” he says. Where did that come from?
“For change to happen,” says GIBS academic Dr Frank Magwegwe, “three things need to be in place. Number one, the person must be dissatisfied with the status quo. Number two, there needs to be a vision for the future. Number three, they must be able to take first steps towards that vision.”
The theory is expressed in a neat formula: D x V x F > R. Dissatisfaction x Vision x First Steps > (must be greater than) Resistance. It’s multiplication, stresses Frank, not addition – if any of the three elements is zero, the total is zero.
Setlogane’s story is a perfect illustration. He had enormous dissatisfaction with his circumstances: “I had too much to lose.” He had a vision: his life and his children’s lives would be like what he experienced in the cinema. As he started reading and rereading the university brochures, this vision burnt brighter and brighter. He took the first steps: he studied hard, and then wrote dozens of applications. The resistance he faced in all his circumstances could simply not stand up to that total.
This formula plays out in story after story in our podcasts. Ofentse Pitse, architect and conductor/owner of a choir and orchestra, describes her thoughts at university, when life got tough: “There’s no obsession for success where I come from, right? You have, like, kids mothering before they even have breasts where I come from. There’s no way I’m going back. If I’m going back, I’m going back to show them that hey, actually this is how I made it out. I’m not going back to be part of the statistic, right? So that’s why me having to push through was based on the fact that I cannot go back. I cannot go back there.” “Dissatisfaction” would be a mild description.
The vision is often not clear, but it is compelling. “I saw my mother struggling. I wanted to alleviate her burden,” says Ofentse. Sometimes it comes from a parent: “You’re not just going to sit on the street corner,” Dr Dorothy (Dots) Ndletyana, one of Frank’s colleagues at GIBS, heard from her father. Sometimes it is very specific: Asnath Mahapa, South Africa’s first black female commercial pilot, saw a plane flying overhead and thought, “Someone is driving that machine. I want to do that.”
The “first steps” needed to start the process of change often require total commitment. Like Setlogane, Isaah Mhlanga, now chief economist at RMB, studied seven days a week, not even going to his matric farewell “because there was nothing to celebrate yet, the results weren’t out.” Ntsiki Biyela, village girl from KZN who would start her own wine label, took a job as a domestic worker, because “it was a stepping stone to get out of the village.”
This seemingly simple formula, D x V x F > R, holds a whole world of life lessons that make a change journey understandable. Together with a family of other concepts like social support, resilience, perspective, and a certain mindset, it can help us all to find our way. “Change is not a black box,” says Frank Magwegwe. “We can unpack it and find tools we can use to do it better.”