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NOTIONS: Will you try to transform or get stuck with status quo?

July 4, 2005

It's 4 a.m. I'm supposed to be writing by now, knitting you a tale about transformation. But the notions have yet to coalesce. So I lie in bed, watching through my bay window as a storm rolls through, igniting the sky with flashes of light.

It's 4:27 a.m. I awaken again and flip on the TV, the sound muted so as not to disturb my son's slumber in the next room. The channel I was watching last night now shows an infomercial. Some people sit on a set, pretending to be interested in one another. Above their heads is a sign saying "Transformation Program."

Because there are no captions, I can't tell who's transforming into what. So I switch to the weather channel to see if the 90-degree heat will soon transform into something less sweltering.

It's 5:50. I awaken again and channelsurf.

The film "Heaven Can Wait" is on. Warren Beatty walks down a corridor from the Los Angeles Rams' locker room. He runs into Julie Christie. They gaze adoringly at one another, wondering if they've met before. He asks if she'd like to have a cup of coffee with him.

She says, "You're the quarterback."

He says, "Yeah."

And the look on her face says she can't explain why, but she knows he's the reincarnation-the divine transformation-of the man she loved.

She says, "I'd love to have a cup of coffee with you," and they walk across the brilliantly lighted field of a now-empty stadium.

We crave transformation. Whether it's the weather, our love lives, our jobs, our bosses, our families, our possessions, our fortunes, our faiths or whatever, we wonder aloud (or in our journals or e-mails) if a tweak here, an alteration there, a radical shift, a rapid retreat or a complete reincarnation of the way we were wouldn't be better than what we have now.

But change also terrorizes us. And because of the uncertainty of what a tweak here, an alteration there, a radical shift, a rapid retreat or a complete reincarnation of the way we were might bring, we wallow in the mire of our unhappy status quo, daring not to disturb the universe.

In other words, we say, "I'm not happy, and that alternative looks really lovely, but if I failed trying to get there, I might get hurt, so I'll just unhappily stay where I am."

In other words, we say, "Heaven can wait."

Problem is, giving up on your dreams, for fear of failing, can leave you awfully miserable and regretful that you didn't even try. Bigger problem lies in that old aphorism: If we don't manage change, it will manage us.

I attended a college alumni board meeting a few weekends ago. A staff member reported on membership. It's not growing as fast as we'd like. When younger alums join, many don't stay very long. And when there's a class reunion, not many come.

The staff member said alums, especially younger ones, want career assistance more than anything. Members of our board pointed out that the biggest benefit touted by our association isn't career advice at all. It's discounted car insurance. And the alumni publications have no career stories-they're about what the professors are professing today. And class reunions, like class reunions of old, are centered on reminiscing with the same old folks, not learning from and networking with new ones.

And I wondered why we don't transform institutions to fit stakeholders instead of trying to transform stakeholders to fit institutions.

I read in the newspaper the other day that a shortage of priests is forcing the Catholic Church to close parishes, and how parishioners are being consolidated into bigger, less-personal congregations where they don't get the same personal ministry.

I've also watched an order of nuns, for whom I volunteer, struggle to recruit new members, and how the remaining sisters must scramble to keep up with their ministry.

And I wondered why a transformation that permits married priests and women priests isn't preferable to a shortage of priests.

I went to a theater board meeting a few weeks ago. The guest speaker said theaters must transform themselves in an age of entertainment overload.

He likened it to a circus. He said circuses always meant lots of tents, and three rings in the main tent, with many things going on simultaneously. Circuses meant clowns, and animals and barkers in the aisles. And the whole thing was geared to children.

But along came a transformation artist. He said, "One tent, not many tents. One ring, not three. And no animals-I don't like to harm animals. And we'll aim for sophisticated adults, not kids."

Today, that circus isn't waiting for heaven or regretting its failure to change. Cirque du Soleil travels the world, bringing joy to the masses and reaping millions for those who saw the lightning and made the transformation.



Hetrick is president and CEO of Hetrick Communications Inc., an Indianapolis-based public relations and marketing communications firm. His column appears weekly. To comment on this column, go to IBJ Forum at www.ibj.comor send e-mail to bhetrick@ibj.com.
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