My husband is in the news business - in New England - which means we were up early this morning on news that Senator Kennedy had passed. Interestingly he passed away late last night, on the anniversary of the death of my father from the same type of cancer. Both were great men - Sen. Kennedy nationally and my father on a local level - and also flawed men (like us all - some just hide it better than others). It's a sad day. Whether you like his politics or not, Senator Kennedy cared deeply about ensuring everyone in our society had access and opportunity and spent his life dedicated to making our society a better place.
I've given a lot of thought to the process of dying over the years mostly thanks to the way my father handled his own mortality. While he underwent treatment, when it was clear that he had an aggressive form of cancer, he accepted that gracefully and spent the limited time he did have on the business of life and relationships, not on fighting. He died gently and with dignity at home. Even in that final stage, he taught me about how to end things - and that sometimes we need to accept the end so that it is dignified and allows for those left behind to move on securely, if sadly. After his death, I also realized some other things:
- By knowing him, we could continue to know him and 'be' with him - I still wonder what he would think about some things but in many situations, I'm pretty sure I know and that knowledge can still make me smile or cause me frustration. Ending something doesn't mean it has to leave you.
- My father lives on through the lives of people he knew. He continues to have influence over how many people think and act - and with that, his life's work continues.
- The end of his day-to-day influence, which was strong, has given me the space and opportunity to become my own person. Part of that means that I've made choices that he may not have made for me, but are good choices for me - and I may not have made while he was alive because I did not want to face his disappointment or disagreement.
- The vacuum of his death in his community forced people to re-assess what they valued and whether they would step up and fill part of that vacuum. It empowered others.
How does all of this relate to our organizations and how we work together? Well, I don't think we are particularly good at dealing with the death of a person, an initiative, or an entire organization. More often than not, we resist the dying and force extreme measures so that we can hold on for just a little longer. The reaction to the suggestion that everyone should have end of life counseling being called 'death panels' is just one of many examples of this. In our organizations, the problem is even greater. It is really hard to kill a dying business model, an initiative/product to which a few senior people are highly committed but is clearly not working, or indeed to say goodbye to staff that just are not a good fit. The suggestion that we end something is pretty horrifying to many people.
The problem is, we ignore the whole concept of ending things often because we feel it reflects our own failure, but everything ends whether we choose to acknowledge it or not. And because we don't often plan for the end, they are often highly disruptive, prolonged, and aching. It takes a lot of courage to put an end to things but often the pay-off is huge - it can save time, money, churn, dissonance, confusion, prolonged anxiety - and it allows for the celebration of the thing that is ending, before it has withered to a shell of its former self and people have forgotten its benefits.
I'm going to spend part of my day today thinking about things that I'm doing that may need to end. It will give me the time and space for more productive and interesting things to take their place. It may be sad and it may be hard - but it's critical to evolution.