Chang becomes a change doula


Chang becomes a change doula

South Africa's leading trend forecaster speaks to ANNELIESE BURGESS about how Covid disrupted humanity and how trends of living and dying (and running a business) shifted forever.


DION Chang is the founder of Flux Trends, and for almost two decades he has had his finger on the shifting sands of what is hip and happening but also on the undercurrents of what makes societies change.

He says Covid-19 was a monster disruptor of our way of doing things. The pandemic “disrupted humanity" and brought profound and fundamental upheavals, many of which we are grappling to come to terms with — especially in the corporate world.

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Shifting values

“We did a trend briefing research paper called The Lockdown Life Audit," Chang says.

“Our point of departure was that if psychologists say that it only takes 21 days to alter your behaviour, what did 24 months of lockdown do to people's psyche and their way of thinking?"

And much of what happened during the pandemic is now playing out in workspaces.

“I do a lot of keynotes; I go into senior exco briefings, and I can see this complete disconnect within executive management about this massive shift in the world of work. Whereas previously there was a straightforward shareholder and bottom-line focus, there is now a shift to include stakeholders. This has created an actual conflict that many organisations are grappling with."

To illustrate how “fundamentally things have flipped on their head", Chang quotes the chief wellness officer at Deloitte about the changing work culture.

“I had this exco briefing recently with a big multinational company, and I used this quote on one of my slides:  ‘We shouldn't value and celebrate the people who stay up all night and burn the midnight oil because that doesn't produce great results for the person or the organisation. It's not a sustainable model.' 

“When someone from a company like Deloitte says this, you know how profound a shift has occurred."

Gen Z

A new generation is also driving the change in the world of work with different values, says Chang.

“Gen Z are the first digital natives of humanity. The brain mapping, the way of learning and the method of processing are entirely different. It is another way of thinking. And then you layer on top the fact that this generation has the highest social justice barometer.

“Globally, we see this young generation pushing against all these old thoughts like you must work yourself to death. 

“We have done eight years of Gen Z research. We started tracking them before they came of age. Before the pandemic, their mantra was, ‘We don't want a job; we want a lifestyle, and work is not a place I go, work is what I do. 

“How ironic that before the pandemic we were saying they are entitled, lazy brats, and now suddenly, after the pandemic, we are going, maybe they've got something.

“But of course, this generational clash is also playing itself out in the workplace because, among senior executive management, there is considerable resistance to this emerging worldview."

A different way

“I've read some articles where they're saying that the older baby boomer worker is secretly quite envious about what these guys are fighting for because they look back on their lives and are left with regret about not having spent enough time with loved ones, not maintaining friendships, having missed their daughter's piano recital or soccer match because they were working.

“So it has started to hit home. But in terms of corporate mind space, there is still this prevailing view of a headquarters, of a temple where we all come and work for eight hours, which guarantees productivity.

“And that is, of course, not true. There are different ways of doing things. I say to these corporate clients, it's not that people don't want to work; they want to work differently from before the pandemic."

Companies worldwide are struggling to adapt to the remote working revolution that the pandemic took mainstream, and the other big challenge is managing new ideas of what productivity means.

“There is this tendency to equate remote or hybrid work with non-productivity, which is such a knee-jerk reaction. If someone comes into the office for eight hours, does that mean you will get eight hours of productivity? That's just bullshit. So I push for outputs and deliverables very hard: ‘Give me a deadline. Tell me what needs to be done, and I will deliver my best work. But don't concern yourself with where or when I do this.'

“It doesn't mean you don't have KPIs; it just means you change your metric for measuring productivity and the journey of getting there is different."

Soul shift

Chang is approaching a landmark birthday, and in the introspection that this has brought he melded a personal calling with his background in trends to develop an interesting business strategy.

It began when he came across the concept of a death doula.

“It started bubbling up during the pandemic when so many people had lost loved ones and death was really on everyone's radar. Most people would be more familiar with a birthing doula, and most would not know what a death doula is. It is a non-medical support structure for emotional, spiritual and sometimes practical assistance as you approach and navigate the end of your life." 

Chang says he felt a calling and trained as a doula. During his training he realised that being an “end-of-life companion" could be far more broadly applied than only to physical death.

“At one point, we were speaking about ‘the end of life as you know it', which was a real lightbulb moment for me. It made me realise that it's much bigger than just dealing with terminal patients. For the past 17 years my company has been working with trends, which essentially is about the birth and death of ideas."

He came up with two out-of-the-box applications for his death doula training.

First, with so many small businesses struggling — and as someone who understands all the challenges — he could apply his doula skills to assist small businesses in navigating distress.

“I can draw on 17 years of tracking disruptive trends, of knowing where lifestyle trends are occurring and where these things are going, and this allows me to give you a different perspective or to clarify your perspective."

The second application does not exist in South Africa and Dion says someone suggested that if he lived in Los Angeles his concept would make him an overnight millionaire.

Being a “death doula for pets" is something he has given a lot of thought to. “I realised that I have a lot of people go through having to put down their pets. And the difficult process of having to decide when is the right time. And the actual saying goodbye. And being there for them with their grief."

When he tested the idea by phoning his local vet and pitching it, the vet asked if he could send two clients over immediately. 

“The number of people I have spoken to about pet deaths and how deep the struggle with loss can be… You can be a huge six-foot rugby player, but when your cat dies it can break you. People can brush it off. You're not supposed to grieve because it's ‘just' a pet. We call this disenfranchised grief. My point is, for 10 or 15 years that sentient being has been right next to you, and when you lose that the grief is very real and very visceral.

“So, I've spread out the death doula definition, going beyond the end of life to incorporate other life-changing experiences like divorces, having a child or immigration."

But for now, as he gears up for his eventual “rewiring" — another  global trend: you don't retire, you rewire for the next chapter — his main focus remains within the business world.

Business doula

Chang says he started hearing about so-called corporate spiritual consultants about a year ago.

“The concept, of course, came from America and was a bit la-la, but it was this developing idea around corporate spiritual wellbeing. How they define it is that humans' need for meaning, purpose and connection comes into play in the world of work. It has been bubbling up in the corporate space, and the concept of a business doula is not so far removed from that when you consider that the corporate mindset is still stuck in ‘you don't need a purpose, you've got a job, you work all your life then you retire'.

The fundamental shift from a shareholder-centric to a stakeholder-centric model is hugely stressful, especially for C-suite executives who must navigate this seismic shift within their companies.

He tells of the silence that descends on a boardroom when he asks the simple question, “Who is looking after you in all of this?"

“A report I read shows that 41 CEOs and CFOs resigned from JSE-listed listed companies in the past 21 months," Chang says.

And there is pressure on middle management, too, because the new world of work requires a different leadership style.

“Middle management had this steep learning curve because they had to learn to manage these remote teams. And that's a real pain point in a lot of companies. In the past, a middle manager was a project manager. Now, it's a lot more to do with the softer skills. Nurturing, mentoring, all those kinds of things. And this is just a very different ballgame," says Chang.


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