Be Aware of the Witness Marks



  • What are witness marks? (00:15)

  • A quick client case study (00:50)

  • Clinging to the old Ways of Doing (3:05)

  • The good old advice is now bad advice (6:40)

  • What if…? (7:45)

  • How I’m handling change in my own business (9:20)

  • Why agile learners make excellent change agents (11:50)

  • Standing steady in the vortex of change (12:50)

Be Aware of the Witness Marks

Be aware of clinging to the witness marks. A witness mark is an intentional, accidental or naturally-occurring spot ­– a line, a groove, or another contrasting area – that serves as an indicator of how things previously were implemented, used, repaired, or what processes were followed.

A Quick Client Case Study

I’ve been working with an organization that’s going through intensive change (and they’re not alone).

Change that some in the organization view as exciting and necessary, others view as disruptive, unsettling and disconcerting. This change is clearly necessary for the sustainability and forward momentum of the organization, especially as the innovations, technologies, systems, and legislation impacting them are changing at lightning speed.

The difference between engaging in change from a perspective of excitement and opportunity versus engaging in change from a place of resentment and frustration is that when you resist change and tighten your grip on what was, you’re likely manifesting disconnection, isolation, and eventual – and inevitable – obsolescence and loss.

I admire the staff of this organization, and it saddens me to see members of this really competent and capable team, who excel at their craft individually, begin to predictively crack a bit as the comfort of the witness marks they’ve come to know – the This is how we’ve always done things – fades through both progress and change.

As the new leader is carrying out what the board expects of her, some of the staff are turning their attention from the present and the future to the comfort of what worked in the past … how things have always been done, and what feels familiar and easy on their brains.

Clinging to the Old Ways of Doing

Now, don’t get me wrong. Witness marks can be incredibly helpful tools. For clocksmiths who work on antique clocks, most clocks arrive with no operating manual or repair history, and so the witness marks – the scars or notches left on the inner workings of an old clock – guide the next clocksmith to know what path to follow. They help the newcomer understand the history of what has been done.

In many organizations, like the one I’m referring to, leadership transformation is in its first generation – meaning that the founder or the owner has been the leader through the first several dozen years of growth. In this situation, it’s really unlikely that the ways of doing have been documented.

Generally speaking, Ways of Doing evolve organically over time, and the knowledge is carried predominantly in the head of the leader. The same can be said for mid-level managers who have had to create their way in a new department or a new initiative, or even for staff who have had to do the same.

When that person (regardless of their position) transitions out, the first new person to step into their role is often met with great resistance. And no matter how eager people were for the former to leave, indicating their readiness with words like: Oh, well, they’ve stayed too long or It’s time for some new blood around here or I’m really eager for someone with fresh ideas and strategies; no matter how many of those comments have been made, suddenly the person who left becomes the beloved and the new leader becomes … well, for lack of better terms – annoying!

No matter how welcome the beloved’s replacement was, a time comes in the first few days, weeks or months when a faction of the staff begin to squirm in the discomfort of change, and you will begin to hear:

I don’t understand what’s happening around here.
That’s not the way we’ve always done it in the past.
We’ve never had a problem with the old procedures.
I don’t understand why things have to change.

These are the early warning signs of resistance as the discomfort of stepping away from the well-worn witness marks and into new approaches, strategies, and even best practices begins to take hold.

The Good Old Advice is Now Bad Advice

I’ve heard and read a variety of advice on this topic, as I’m sure you have, too. Here are a few of the most common statements I hear about this:

  • Change nothing for the first 90 days.

  • Only listen and observe for the first 39 days.

And my personal favorite…

  • Don’t smile until Christmas. You can loosen the reins after you establish your leadership. But it’s hard to tighten them back up again if you’re too soft in the beginning.

All these are reasonable and make sense to some degree. However, we’re currently in a period where change is happening so rapidly that 90 days, or even 39 days, is too long.

What if…?

All too often, the new staff person or the new leader is deemed unsuccessful or the wrong fit when, in actuality, the people, and ultimately, the culture, have not adequately prepared for change. All too often, people seek to place blame for their feelings of discomfort instead of exploring their own responsibility for the creation of the drama.

So what if, instead, we invested energy in helping people become more skillful with flourishing within change?

What if we simultaneously prepare those who are responsible for implementing and managing change to build alliances and provide the people around them with opportunities to be heard and tools to communicate non-emotionally?

What if we empowered people to be effective change agents instead of surprised or reactionary when change is met with resistance and drama?

How I’m Handling Change in My Own Business

I’m going through a little bit of this in my own business…

I’ve done things my own way for years – developed my own Ways of Doing – and my systems aren’t clear, my technology isn’t efficient, and most of the time, my jargon makes sense to nobody but me. And yet, I’ve willingly partnered with new team members to help me advance and grow.

As we work through things that feel (to me) like they should be simple, we sometimes need to pause to check in on language and jargon, and also to help me see where technology has advanced and where my workarounds and my Ways of Doing are holding me back instead of moving me forward.

Sometimes I struggle to let go, and I hear myself saying, “But it’s always worked well this way!” Luckily, I’m met with an empathetic ear who helps me see how a change, although uncomfortable, could make all the difference.

I am also partnering with someone who understands that, when in the midst of change, it’s important to take breaks and participate in mindfulness activities to let my subconscious integrate and assimilate the change.

Sometimes I resist and resort to the old witness marks of how I’ve always done business. Sometimes that feels comforting temporarily, but ultimately, it always causes drama.

In the end, I know that change is inevitable and innovation moves faster than I can possibly imagine. It’s in these times that I reflect on one of my key learnings from Thomas Friedman’s book Thank You for Being Late, and that is: information now has an expiration date.

Why Agile Learners Make Excellent Change Agents

Aspiring to be the expert in any area is no longer a valuable use of time. Instead, the value is in understanding that I am a perpetual learner, showing up with curiosity, and recognizing that what was true at 9:00 AM today may be different by 9:00 AM tomorrow.

It’s true: We need to check and recheck that what we believe we know is true because knowledge and innovation are evolving daily.

So beware of holding on tightly to the witness marks of the past and, instead, become agile and curious, and be empathetic with yourself and others as we engage with rapid and perpetual change.

Standing steady in the vortex of change

I don’t have any idea if all of the members of the organization I mentioned will be able to welcome and embrace the new leader or bond around the heavy lifting that inevitable change requires. I don’t know if they will continue to try to hold on to the witness marks of how things have always been done – but I sure hope they give it a go.

As Thomas Friedman tells us, change and innovation are happening at a far faster rate than our ability as humans to grow and adapt.

Now, more than ever, we must engage as agile learners who are curious and willing to both make missteps and simply accept them as tools for gathering additional data. We must connect and not isolate, we must bond together and not resist, and we must not – we must absolutely not –become triggered to the point that we check out or withdraw.

It’s also critical to develop practices for taking healthy breaks from change by engaging in intentional mindfulness activities. This time out not only restores our balance and rests our brain, but also allows our subconscious to do some of the heavy lifting of assimilating change.

So if you are feeling a bit ungrounded in the current vortex of change, I invite you to try my new one-hour online class, Standing Steady in the Vortex of Change. It’s self-paced, and you can register immediately, participate at any time, and review as often as you like.

I want to leave you with this for today: Now, more than ever, the world needs you to show up and bring your unique skills and your unique perspective to the table.

So let’s do this together.



So, are you dealing with drama and chaos in your workplace? If you are, contact me.  Let’s get together and dig below the apparent symptoms to uncover the real concerns, and build a plan to increase the forward movement of your team or organization.

CommunicationBeth Wonson