Every department head, manager, director, or CEO experiences workload pressures. Sometimes my wife, Alison, would arrive at the office with a sandwich to keep me going while I worked late. The uninvited advice on workload various people gave me was: delegate more. They made it sound so easy.

Those advice-givers were well-meaning, and delegation is certainly good management practice. But those who said ‘delegate more’ had little knowledge of my work situation, were almost never leaders themselves, and spoke as if delegation is a simple and effortless way to offload work. In fact, delegation is neither simple nor effortless.

In what follows I’ll describe obstacles to delegation, but also suggest ways in which it can be done effectively.

First, you can delegate only to people who are available and suitable. I’ll explain why I use these two terms one at a time.

The availability issue is at its most obvious if we picture someone running a one-person business. That boss can’t delegate because there’s no-one to give the work to! They could out-source some tasks, which is often a good idea but only when the work can be done equally well by someone outside the business. Most work, though, requires in-house knowledge, and that can’t be delegated to non-existent colleagues.

And even when there are colleagues we can’t assume anyone is available. Let’s imagine Josh started his business alone, but now employs six others because the there’s plenty work. Josh’s phone rings constantly, electronic orders pour in, the despatch team keeps shipping out products. It’s all good; the business is flourishing. But it’s not all good. Josh is exhausted, and, like him, his team often work late to meet demand. Then someone, seeing how tired Josh is, whispers in his ear: ‘You should delegate more’. Really? Who can he give his work to? There is no-one in his six-person team who’s employed full-time but has only a part-time workload. Josh would love to delegate, but there is simply no-one available who has spare capacity. (Should Josh hire more staff? Ideally that’s exactly what he should do, but for many small businesses payroll costs are their most expensive overhead, and employing even one more person would eradicate his profit and jeopardise the company’s viability.)

Suitability is the other essential for delegation. Let’s imagine that Jerry – who has a small construction company – also has six employees. Jerry’s team do excellent work, so previous customers generate new clients by word of mouth recommendations. Every new client, though, means a site visit followed by preparing and sending a cost estimate, and, when the estimate is accepted, every job involves background work such as securing building approvals, scheduling the work, ordering materials, and hiring specialist equipment. And of course records must be kept, which must be made ready for tax payments and audit. Jerry handles all that. Why doesn’t he delegate some of it to one of his six colleagues? They’re fine workers, but they’re builders and none has the skills necessary for preparing estimates, accounting for finances on spreadsheets, or any of the other background work Jerry does. They’re highly skilled at what they do, but not at all skilled at what he does. Even if one or more was available, they wouldn’t be suitable. And, no matter the size of business, the suitability issue is always relevant for delegation.

These two problems – availability and suitability – are real. I know of the demoralisation that followed when a boss dumped his work onto a colleague who was already over-worked. Within six months the overloaded employee was an ex-employee of that company. And I know of the consequences when work was given to someone untrained and therefore unable to handle the task. They didn’t resign, but the work was done poorly. The employee was blamed for doing a bad job, but the blame really belonged with the unfair and unwise delegator.

One – almost amusing – final comment on the availability and suitability matter. I’ve read accounts from management gurus who’ve discovered real competence and authority at the top of a company – except not right at the top. The Personal Assistant (Executive Assistant) to the Chief Executive managed her boss’s calendar, decided which meetings he’d attend, controlled staff access to him, selected the business papers he would read, wrote his speeches, and drafted important documents for the Board. The management gurus remarked that you wondered who was really running the company. Almost always the boss was male, and the assistant female, but she had the greater knowledge and expertise. Management culture is changing – albeit slowly – and hopefully such competent assistants will increasingly become the CEOs.

Second, delegation without supervision or accountability is particularly dangerous. One department leader told me: ‘I’ve given out tasks to my staff, and I don’t want to know anything more about the things they’re now handling’. Gently I informed him that was not an acceptable approach to delegation. Why not? After all, isn’t delegation about letting go of work to others? It is, but what you can’t delegate is your responsibility for what’s done. You’re responsible to ensure the project goes in the right direction. You’re responsible for the standard of work being satisfactory. And you’re responsible that the deadline is met, for the conclusions reached, and so on. Hence my department head – not the staff working under him – was accountable for all these things, and a completely hands-off approach was an invitation to chaos. Delegation of work is good, but delegation has limits.

Third, here are four further guidelines for good practice with delegation.

Clear expectations    No-one should be given a task without clarity on key points like these:

  1. What exactly do you want done?
  2. When is the work due?
  3. Do I show you this work when complete, or do you want to see drafts at earlier stages?
  4. What is the budget for this?
  5. What extra resources or support will be available to me?
  6. Are there special factors, such as keeping this work confidential?

And even:

7. What work would you like me to stop doing in order to take on this new task?

As a boss, I learned to be clear on all these things, and especially numbers 3 and 7. With 3, I discovered that staff liked to surprise me by submitting what they considered a finished product. Sometimes they virtually said, ‘Don’t ask me to change anything now!’ To prevent that I found I had to be crystal clear from the beginning that I wanted to know the direction their work was going long before they finished. With number 7, I realised that at the outset I had to discuss with my staff member what work they could set aside in order to do the new thing. Perhaps there were no existing tasks the employee could completely postpone, in which case there were only three options: a) get another person to take on the employee’s existing work; b) scale back the timetable for the new work; c) delegate to someone else whose existing work could wait.

Sensible and sensitive supervision    I’ve touched on supervision earlier, so here my emphasis is on the words ‘sensible and sensitive’. Sensible supervision means constructive support as they do the work. What it’s not is doing the work for your colleague. If you have to do the thinking, the research, the calculations (or similar tasks) then you’ve not delegated to the right person (or you, the boss, don’t understand delegation). Sensitive supervision is knowing when to check on progress and how to comment on progress. It’s finding the right stages or time intervals for updates – never repeatedly looking over your colleague’s shoulder, and never being too busy to give them time.

Having a reserve plan    If the delegated work is ‘mission critical’ – a task the company must have done – then the boss needs a plan in case the person handling the work falls sick or leaves. Since this is essential work, it can’t be abandoned, so either it can be passed to another staff member or the boss must take it on. In an emergency, either of those options requires a clear idea of what’s already done and what’s still to be done. The wise boss already knows that, and the perfect boss has kept a record. If the person who was handling the work has taken seriously ill or left the company, that record may be the only guide to what’s still to be done by whoever picks up the project.

Your delegation is someone else’s preparation    I got two reactions from colleagues when I delegated work to them. Some disliked it, either because they felt busy enough already or because they didn’t welcome unfamiliar work. Other colleagues jumped at the chance, even if their workload increased. They enjoyed the challenge and the new work would broaden their experience. After all, their hopes of a more senior position might depend on the importance and extent of their previous work. A foolish and weak leader is threatened by preparing those under him for leadership. Perhaps they’ll perform better than their boss. A wise and strong leader actively mentors colleagues, develops their careers, and trusts them with responsibility. That’s good for both the employee and for the company.

I’ll leave this post on delegation at this point. But I’ll return to the subject in the next post when I’ll describe the odd but not uncommon phenomenon of delegation in reverse.

Change that lasts

I was 18, renting one room from a delightful New Zealand couple, Brian and Sally. For a reason I don’t recall, I went shopping with my landlady. We bought various things, and then Sally said it was time for a coffee break at a nearby café. For her, it was far more than a coffee break, as I watched her also order a large piece of cake smothered in cream. Now, Sally was considerably overweight and, I thought, on a strict slimming diet. I said nothing, but she saw a puzzled look on my face. ‘You mustn’t tell Brian,’ she said. ‘He thinks I’m sticking rigidly to my diet.’

During the time I knew her Sally never lost any weight, and I suspect Brian was well aware of what his wife was doing – sometimes sticking to the healthy-eating rules, sometimes secretly yielding to unhealthy-eating habits. Thankfully he loved her whatever her weight.

In the last two blog posts I’ve written about change. In the first, about a dramatic change in the life of a convicted murderer, so great a change that after prison he studied theology and became a church pastor. In the second, I outlined four important steps for personal change.

However, here’s the problem with change: often it doesn’t last. By a few weeks into January most of us have broken our New Year resolutions. My one-time landlady Sally couldn’t sustain a lower weight. She was a yo-yo dieter: the weight would go down (when she controlled her eating) and then up again (when temptation took over).

It’s important that changes ‘stick’, because when they don’t the effort is wasted, the experience is depressing, and we’re tempted to think ‘I can never change’.

So, how do we make change last? Inconveniently, the answer to that varies from person to person, and is different from one situation to another. Which means there is no simple answer. However, some principles or practices help. I’ve listed seven below.

Determination   The decision to change must be much more than wishful thinking. All of us would like some things in our lives to be different, but often the idea is little more than a fleeting desire. And that won’t do. Change demands effort well beyond the thought that we’d like to live or work better.

Sandy had a hot temper which upset everyone on whom he vented his anger. It nearly cost him his job. He promised to change, and believed that recognising his problem and resolving to be different was all he needed to do. But next time the red mist came down, his anger flared, and terrible words were shouted. He was no better. Simon had a hot temper too. He caused damage every time he inflicted his rage on family and his business customers. Simon also knew he must change, but Simon’s advantage was a determination which verged on stubbornness. He absolutely resolved that his temper would not control him. When he  felt his anger building, he’d pause, calm himself, and control what he said and did next. And the change ‘stuck’. Simon was no longer the man with a fiery temper. Deep determination to be different is a necessary part of lasting change.

Vigilance    Those who make change last are vigilant in two ways.

First, they recognise and avoid situations where temptation might get the better of them. For landlady Sally that would mean not entering a café where she’d have to walk past a counter of super-fattening delicacies. For Murray, it meant developing a social life outside his home. Why? Murray was in his thirties, lived alone, and found little fulfilment in his work or anything else. His loneliness led to evenings of accessing extreme social media sites and online porn. Eventually that diet of evil made Murray feel even worse. His decision to change involved joining a volunteer group which maintained the homes and gardens of those too old or infirm to cope, and becoming a member of a computer club where he learned programming. He made friends, attended football matches with them, and afterwards joined them for meals and a drink at a local pub. In time Murray’s life became enjoyable and purposeful. He’d recognised and avoided the circumstances that generated his bad habits, and created a rich and pleasant set of friends and activities.

Second, change also requires vigilance to notice tendencies back to old habits. That’s what Simon – the man with the fiery temper – learned. Spot the problem when it’s only a small problem, and prevent it becoming a big problem. A couple I knew got into deep debt simply because they loved buying things. Debt collectors came to the house, sometimes very late at night. The couple hated how bad things had got, said they’d change, but they kept their sales catalogues (there was no internet back then). Inevitably when the old desires stirred, out would come the catalogues which they’d scour for goods, buy things they could not afford, and thus get into yet more debt. Change requires vigilance to recognise and deal with old patterns before they do damage.

Timing    Imagine this scenario:

  • there’s a deadline for the most major work project in which you’ve ever been involved. You feel stressed and exhausted
  • your son has failed his university exams, and come home depressed with no idea now what he’ll do with his life
  • your wife is ill, going through tests, with the potential that her condition is terminal
  • your car keeps breaking down, and you should buy a better one but there’s no money for that

Given these circumstances, is this the time to make another attempt to stop smoking? Quitting cigarettes is entirely a good idea, but is it realistic when faced with serious life-pressures?

In fact, sometimes what I’ve called ‘life pressures’ are exactly the things that cause our bad habits. Drinking too much alcohol, over-eating, being irritable, are often responses to negative events around us. Certainly, such bad habits need to go, but we may have to delay the challenge until some of the stress-causing events of life have eased. I don’t like writing that, but I think it’s realistic. You can’t plant a tree and expect it to grow if it’s placed in the middle of a building site with earth-moving vehicles heaving up the soil almost every day. Likewise, change that lasts often requires other things in our lives to be relatively settled, thus allowing the change to grow and take root.

Habits    We think that change means giving up bad habits. But lasting change means picking up good habits. We can liken this to ways of improving memory. When I’m setting off to play a golf match, I must take ten different golf-related things with me. Several times I’ve forgotten one of those ten, but thankfully the course where I usually play is only two minutes drive from home. If there’s time, I come back for the omitted item. If my tee time is imminent, Alison (wonderful wife that she is) will bring it to me. But now I’m almost never without all ten golfing essentials. A miracle? No miracle, just that I’ve developed a routine – a habit – about the order in which I put the ten in the car. So, the sequence for the last five is this: electric trolley, trolley battery, golf shoes, bag of clubs, and last my driver and fairway wood because they’re the longest clubs and they rest on everything else. My sequencing isn’t evidence of an obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) – I don’t do this with anything else – just a way of ensuring I have everything I need to play golf.

Developing good habits – ways we should think or act – serve a similar purpose. If what we need to change is that we don’t get enough sleep, then the practice of making, say, 10.00 the latest stopping point for work or watching TV, and then being in bed by 10.30, is a good  habit. It’s an aid to sustain our goal of sleeping better and longer.

Baby steps    Every parent is excited when their child takes his or her first steps. Suddenly your little girl is standing up, moves one leg, then the other, perhaps one more step and then… she falls over. Hopefully she’s not hurt, and she’s up trying out her walking skills again. Parents hug and congratulate their child when those baby steps are taken. What they don’t do is announce: ‘Great, you’re walking now. We’re going for a hike over the hill.’ One day that hike will happen, but right now parents and child have to be content with just two or three steps across the lounge.

I could give plenty more examples where there’s value in starting gradually, such as someone training for a marathon beginning with a gentle jog and not attempting a 26 mile run. But you get the point, which is that some (not all) changes shouldn’t be attempted in one super-ambitious effort. The person spending more than they earn might be wise to lower their purchasing budget by only ten per cent per month, and, when that’s accomplished, to then lower it a further ten per cent, and so on. The person working well beyond their finishing time might be wise to start by working one hour less, and cut out another hour only when the first goal is settled. For most, attempting too much too soon is a recipe for failure, and thus discouragement and giving up.

But are there some changes which shouldn’t be done gradually? Yes. I won’t spell them out but they’d fit under the headings of law-breaking or immorality. Those demand immediate attention.

Persistence    My landlady Sally had tried dieting many times. She wasn’t grossly obese but certainly overweight enough to be damaging her health. But every time the weight-loss plan failed, she gave up. She stopped believing she could ever change; she’d always be large. After a year or two, though, the guilt and concern of being overweight would lead to another diet, and then the recurring cycle of failing, condemning herself, deciding she could never be slimmer, and giving up for at least a year.

It didn’t have to be like that. Sally needed to know six things:

  • Most people fail in the early stages of change.
  • The best response to failing is to return immediately to doing what’s right. One lost battle doesn’t mean you can’t win the war.
  • Set a new and realistic time target for sustaining the changed behaviour (healthy eating in Sally’s case). It might be as short as two days.
  • Tell someone else what you’re doing, and get their support.
  • When you achieve your short-term goal, celebrate – not with something unhealthy, but certainly with something you like. It might be watching a favourite film.
  • Set another goal, which should be a little more challenging but never too much.

Most of us get very excited that we’re changing our lives. The price of that enthusiasm is deep disappointment when we fail. We must not let our discouragement rob us of starting over again. There’s an old saying: falling down is not the problem; staying down is the problem. When we fail, if at all possible we should get up and get on with doing the right thing.

Support    One of the points just above is telling a friend or partner or spouse about the change you’re trying to make, and getting their encouragement and help. That is so important I could have put it at the top of my list.

When I struggled with depression my wife Alison and friend Jim were essential to help me escape the dark pit in which I felt trapped. Alison never judged me, just gently spoke hope into my thinking, and loved me no matter what. Jim kept telling me my depression wouldn’t be forever, that one day I’d see my life and the world in a better light. Despite his busy schedule, he’d meet with me or we’d talk by phone at least once a week. I remember he called one evening when I couldn’t bear to speak with anyone. Alison explained to him, and Jim said to reassure me that was fine and we’d talk again when I felt better. Many times I wanted to give up on myself, but neither Alison nor Jim would give up on me. They kept me going, and eventually I got out of that pit.

A good supporter will never give up on someone trying to change. When you doubt you’ll ever change, they’ll help you believe it will happen. When you fail, they won’t condemn. When you confess what you’re doing wrong, they’ll listen and respect your privacy. When you’re not coping, they’ll be patient. When you’re being awkward, they’ll make allowances. When you’re going astray, they’ll care for you enough to tell you to get back on the right path. When you achieve a goal, they’ll celebrate with you.

I strongly encourage you to find support, someone with whom you can be ruthlessly honest and to whom you can make yourself accountable. You need that person if the change you want is to last.

In conclusion, then, change is tough. Small changes are easy to make, but the big ones are hard. If only we could just throw a switch and behave differently from that moment forward. But there’s no switch. We need time, perseverance, willingness to sacrifice, and support along the way. I’ve known some who never reached their goal, but I’ve also known many who did. And I’ve walked that hard road in my own life, and I’m so thankful I did. When we know we need to change, we must never shy away from doing whatever it takes to achieve that goal.


In my last blog post, I told the story of Ernst Dumoulin. He murdered his wife on their wedding night, spent 16 years in prison, but, after release, became a church pastor. He had changed. His life after prison was completely different compared to his life before prison.

Change is not easy. Ask anyone who’s lost weight but put it all back on later. Or tried to cure their short temper and stay calm. Or to resist driving above the speed limit on an empty road with no-one else around. Attitudes and habits are stubbornly resistant to change, like weeds you hack down which soon return.

But change can happen, and to explain how I’ll use a story of change which includes four essential steps for turning life around. Some self-help books seem to suggest change can occur without cost or effort. It can’t, and I will not pretend that the four steps here are painless. Almost always change requires time, hard work, and sacrifice, but it is unimaginably worth it.

The story of change I’ll use is often called the Parable of the Prodigal Son.[1] It was told by Jesus and sits alongside other lost/found stories in Luke’s gospel, chapter 15. I will summarise the story, and when I quote the exact words I’ll be using the translation called the New International Version (NIV).

A father had two sons, both grown up. The younger son got weary of the quiet life on the family farm, and made an outrageous request to his father, to give him his inheritance money now. Remarkably, his father agreed, and gave his son a small fortune. Soon after, the young man walked away, and he kept going until he reached another country. Then his crazy spending started. Jesus said he ‘squandered his wealth in wild living’ (Luke 15:13). When money is thrown around, so-called friends are plentiful. From later in the story, we know many of those ‘friends’ were prostitutes.

But, of course, the boy didn’t have a bottomless pit of money. When it ran out the friends were gone. The lad was destitute and, to make matters worse, a famine ravaged the land. He was in another country, with no support, no nearby family, and now no money. The boy was famished. In desperation he begged a farmer to hire him, which he did and sent him into the fields to feed his pigs. Jewish law did not permit eating pork, so his work was demeaning and counter to his upbringing and beliefs. When he’d asked for his inheritance, he’d imagined the vast sum would provide him with a life of ease and pleasure, but that dream was now a nightmare. The boy stared at the pods he fed to the pigs, knowing they had more food than he did. No-one gave him anything, and before long he would die of hunger.

But one day, the wayward son came to his senses. He realised that back home even his father’s servants had food to spare ‘and here I am starving to death!’ (Luke 15:17). To stay was to die. To go home might mean rejection, but, if he confessed how wrong he’d been, just possibly his father would allow him to become a servant. His clothes in tatters and no sandals on his feet, he set off on the long trek home. The reception he got there was very different from what he expected.

It’s a great story, but what are its four steps to personal change?

STEP ONE  Realism    ‘I’m not an alcoholic,’ Jerry told me, ‘I just like a drink’. He liked a drink so much that consuming a few pints of beer had become a daily habit. Often it was more than a few and he’d have to be helped home. Jerry’s drink problem had wrecked the family finances, almost destroyed the last vestiges of his relationship with his wife and children, and he was about to lose his job. But he kept insisting he just liked a drink. Everyone except Jerry knew he was an out-of-control alcoholic. Many had tried to help him, but they got nowhere because Jerry denied he had a problem.

Nothing changes in our lives until we believe it must change. The word ‘must’ in that last sentence is important. Most people I’ve known who smoked wished they didn’t. Plenty of them had tried giving up but failed after a few days or weeks. But wishful thinking is far short of the total rejection of the status quo which change requires.

My favourite short book is one that has been used extensively in management and leadership training, but also has lessons for the ordinary lives of everyday people: ‘Who Moved My Cheese?’, by Dr Spencer Johnson.[2]  The main text covers just over 70 pages, but is a great example of how to use a fable to communicate deep truth.

The story is about two mice and two ‘littlepeople’ who live inside a maze. I’ll concentrate only on the littlepeople, Hem and Haw, who find a cheese-filled corridor and settle down to a pleasant life close by. Every day they feast on the cheese. But Hem and Haw become too comfortable. They get complacent and don’t realise the cheese supply is dwindling. One day there’s no cheese in their corridor, and Hem asks ‘Who moved my cheese?’. They’d assumed there would always be cheese, so had no plan what to do if there was none.

At first both are angry. Then Haw suggests they should go looking for new cheese. Hem refuses. There ought to be cheese where there was always cheese. Some time later Haw again proposes a search for new cheese. Hem is stubborn and turns down the idea. He will stay exactly where the cheese has always been abundant. By now both are looking emaciated, so one day Haw gives up waiting for Hem to agree, and off he goes to search the maze for more cheese. Along the way he finds small pieces, and generously takes some back to Hem to encourage him to search too. Hem not only refuses to move, he won’t eat the cheese Haw has brought. Well, Haw concludes, Hem can wait in that corridor if he wants, but he must keep searching. Haw explores ever deeper into the maze, round corner after corner. Finally, Haw finds a place filled with cheese, even some kinds he’s never tasted before. He could not be happier or more satisfied. He left a place with no cheese, and, because he did, he’s discovered a new place where cheese is plentiful and nourishing.

The lesson of the fable is obvious. Change must happen. We must find the ‘new’ when the ‘old’ is no longer there or good for us. Haw recognised the danger and misery of staying where he was. He did a reality check, and knew he must move. Likewise, before anything else, we must recognise when something is making our lives harmful, or wasteful, or unfulfilling, or pointless. Nothing better will happen until we accept that truth.

STEP TWO  Vision    The young man in Jesus’ parable didn’t have a vision in the mystical, dreamy sense. But he looked back, and realised what a better life his father’s servants had compared to what he was experiencing. He was starving, and wouldn’t be able to keep going much longer. The servants back home weren’t hungry; they’d more food than they needed, and they’d have food again tomorrow, the day after, and many more well into the future. That realisation generated a vision, that perhaps he could be like them, and have what they had.

It’s worth noticing his vision wasn’t a big one. All he imagined is that he might become a servant on his father’s estate. He could not have believed that he’d be restored to all he’d once had as a son, the status he had before he took his father’s money and squandered it. To be treated again as a son was impossible, and no-one tries to achieve what he knows is impossible. But he could believe he’d be taken back as a servant. It wasn’t a great vision, but it was possible so he was motivated to try.

Step two is to envision a better future, but it must be a vision you can believe in. You won’t reach further than your faith can stretch.

STEP THREE  Plan    The young man knew what he would do and say. ‘I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants’ (verses 18-19).

I like two things about his plan.

  • First, that it exists. He knew what he had to do: the journey he would take – the admission he would make – the request he would present. People have told me, ‘I want to be a better person’. That sounded good, but, as I probed, they didn’t know what being a better person involved, nor what steps they’d take to become that person. Someone else would say, ‘I want to get out of debt’. That was specific, which is helpful. But they had given no thought to the challenges they’d face in order to owe nothing, such as cutting out all nonessential purchases. Without identifying the steps their plan would involve, they’d near certainly give up when faced with sacrifices. The boy in Jesus’ story was very clear about both his goal and what he’d need to do and say to achieve it.
  • Second, that he would not hide or minimise how wrong he’d been. He would make no excuses or attempt to justify what he’d done. He would admit he’d sinned against heaven and against his father, thus making himself unworthy to be called his son. And, later in the story, that’s exactly what he confessed when he met his father (verse 21).  It’s all too easy to say, ‘I know I did wrong but…’ But I was going through a bad patch… But I didn’t realise the consequences… But I was young at the time… But my friends pressured me… Or any other of many reasons which, while possibly true, don’t justify the wrong we’ve done. The young man would not make any excuses for his betrayal of God and his family.

Step three towards change is a clear plan.

STEP FOUR  Action    I think step one in this list is very hard: getting realistic about the mistakes we’ve made or the mess our lives are in. Steps two and three, envisioning something better and planning for it, are far from easy yet not as difficult as step one. Step four is perhaps the hardest step of all to take towards change: actually beginning. It sounds effortless, and Jesus describes the young man’s start very simply, ‘So he got up and went to his father’ (verse 20).

In one sense, beginning is simple. There’s truth in the old saying that a journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. Of course it does, and any walking journey is only a matter of putting one foot in front of the other. But that first step can be incredibly hard. Why? Because it’s putting our fine thoughts and words about change into action. There’s no cost or challenge about a dream. But when we do something to bring the dream into reality, there are hard and painful challenges. For the boy, it began with an arduous and very long trek home. And day after day he would be bombarded mentally with terrifying thoughts of his past failure and the likely rejection of him by his family that lay in his future. And how would he be able to stand before his father, make his confession of wrongdoing and ask for permission to become a servant. Taking action – starting out – meant all of that would happen.

In the fable of the littlepeople, it seems Hem could never make that move. If he really thought new cheese would magically reappear one day, he was an idiot. If he was simply fearful about setting out without knowing exactly where to go, I’m more sympathetic. Yet, that fear imprisons us where we are, and prevents us finding the new and better thing that lies ahead for our lives.[3] And that’s sad.

The young man in Jesus’ parable didn’t let fear stop him. He returned home, confessed to his father and asked to be treated as a servant. But before he’d got all his words out, his father was embracing and kissing him, overjoyed to have him back, then shouting for the best robe to put on him, for a feast to be prepared and a celebration organised. His father told everyone, ‘For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found’ (verse 24).

The fourth step – action – ended with an outcome far more wonderful than had ever occurred to the young man. He was accepted, reinstated, and his return celebrated. He’d risked changing, and the result was utterly amazing.

Have the courage to make changes – perhaps using the four steps listed here – and I hope you find change makes an amazing difference to your life.

[1] The word ‘prodigal’ means wasteful, lavish, extravagant, as done by a spendthrift.

[2] Who Moved my Cheese? by Spencer Johnson was first published in 1998, originally by GP Putman’s Sons. In the UK it is published by Vermilion, part of the Random House Group.

[3] I wrote once before about letting go of what we have to find something even better – see