It might not seem that long but The Matrix was released in theatres 15 years ago! Beyond dazzling us with innovative special effects and reminding us that Keanu is the master of deadpan delivery, the movie provides good examples of how we deal with change as well as lessons in effective (and ineffective) change management.
Neo’s first reaction after the reality of The Matrix sinks in is shock & denial – “He’s gonna pop!“. This reaction occurs in spite of the fact that he has been actively seeking the answer to the question “What is the Matrix?”. This should be a warning to all of us that even those who we would consider are the early adopters for change may not be truly ready to absorb it when it hits.
Neo’s subsequent reaction highlights the sadness that many feel once they know the status quo is going to change whether or not they want it to “I can’t go back, can I?“. However, over the remainder of the film we see Neo’s growing acceptance and finally commitment in both understanding the reality he is living in as well as his critical role in it. and , and finally his commitment to it. He becomes the change advocate that Morpheus always believed he could be: “No one has ever done anything like this – That’s why it’s going to work“.
Neo’s final words demonstrate how far he has evolved in becoming a change advocate “I’m going to show them a world without you. A world without rules and controls, without borders or boundaries. A world where anything is possible. Where we go from there is a choice I leave to you.”
With other characters, change reception is not as positive. Cypher’s interpretation of his removal from the Matrix is that he has lost his freedom instead of gaining it: “All I do is what he tells me to do. If I had to choose between that and the Matrix, I’d choose the Matrix.” Cypher’s behavior shows how easy it can be for someone to slide back from acceptance to fear and anger if change is not properly managed. Just think what might have been avoided if Morpheus had done a better job of either managing Cypher’s expectations or recognizing that he would never fully embrace the change.
Morpheus’ comments to Neo about those who remain plugged into the Matrix also demonstrates how people can actively resist poorly managed change even if it is in their best interests “You have to understand, most of these people are not ready to be unplugged. And many of them are so inured, so hopelessly dependent on the system, that they will fight to protect it.”
So what does Morpheus do to ensure that Neo embraces the change?
- He doesn’t candy-coat or mask the truth. “I didn’t say it would be easy, Neo. I just said it would be the truth.“
- He gives Neo choices. “After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill – the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill – you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.“
- He repeatedly demonstrates that he believes in Neo. “You see, you may have spent the last few years looking for me, but I have spent my entire life looking for you.“
- He progressively introduces the change to Neo providing support along the way through discussion, training simulations and finally reality. “Do you believe that my being stronger or faster has anything to do with my muscles in this place? Do you think that’s air you’re breathing now?“
- He unwittingly provides Neo with a stretch assignment to help accelerate his change adoption: “Morpheus believes in something and he was ready to give his life, I understand that now. That’s why I have to go.“
- He and his colleagues try to inject as much fun as possible into the change “Ju jitsu? I’m gonna learn Ju jitsu.“
Apply these practices the next time you are faced with leading a major change and you won’t need to worry about someone saying “Good bye, Mr Anderson!”