The Pace of Change

When will we be done?

This question, often asked within the first few days of starting a change initiative, puts those involved with catalyzing change in quite a bind. Share an ambitious or aggressive date and deep down we all know it’s not really possible. Share a date too far in the future and people may think it isn’t worth the investment. Share any date and the tension may be felt as the date approaches and the results aren’t there.

It’s not hard to understand why this question comes up. Pressure often builds inside the organization causing the speed of change to be of the essence. This pressure comes from:

A Sense of Urgency. Perhaps your organization waited too long to change as described in this blog post about starting early. Competitors are nipping at your heels, employees are unhappy, market share is slipping away. Something must be done and done fast.

An Unsettled Feeling. Perhaps your organization has announced a change is coming but few details have been shared. This feeling of instability often triggers a response from leaders to acknowledge the insecurity felt by the organization and that it will be “figured out” by a certain date or as soon as possible. Now it just needs to happen.

A Fear of Cost. Perhaps your organization has created an internal team responsible for change or hired outside consultants and coaches to guide the change. Or both. Either way this in an investment in time and money and when the meter is running people want to know when results are coming.

So when presented with the question of how soon a change will happen (or when will we be transformed), my typical response is, “You can’t schedule a revolution, you can only foster an environment for one to happen.”

This statement doesn’t go over very well. But the point I try to make is if change is initially constrained by a date or cost, the result is often disappointing. The pressure to change focuses exclusively on generating quick wins and often stops short of having long-lasting impact.

So, instead of starting with “When will we get there?” a better question might be “How can we create an environment for change to be as natural as breathing?”

As many who are undertaking the challenge of meaningful and holistic change in organizations throughout the world know, explaining an approach to facilitating an environment of change is not easy and calculating how long it will take is virtually impossible. To help, nothing beats a little diagram.

This is a simple mental model visualizing just how an organization can use natural cycles of lift and resistance to allow an environment of change to emerge. Let’s walk through it with more detail.

1. The Building of Momentum

The change begins. This period is often characterized by:

  • An announcement of needed change.
  • Principles or values created to guide the change.
  • A change or transformation team being assembled.
  • External experts, coaches or consultants called in.
  • Initial training for early adopters.
  • Pilot teams identified to try out our “new way of working.”

Things feels pretty good here. There is an initial lift during this time when early adopters and professional coaches provide much of the energy and momentum. Quick wins from early pilots create intrigue, generates energy, and inspires belief in our new way of working.

2. The Ceiling of Resistance

Before long, the initial lift will meet inevitable resistance. The intensity of this resistance is in direct correlation to the amount of change being introduced into the organization.

While different with every organization, the resistance can manifest itself in varying degrees as:

  • Uncertainty about our new way of working…actually working.
  • Confusion about roles and responsibilities in our new way of working.
  • Leadership behaviors in opposition to our new way of leading.
  • Formal systems in competition with the new way of working.
  • Old habits fighting against our new way of working habits.
  • Deep-rooted politics, silo-building, bureaucracy, and in-fighting continue from our old way of working.

3. The Period of Confusion, Doubt, and Exhaustion

When the momentum of initial lift collides with your resistance, a period of heightened emotional reactions and feelings of uncertainty will emerge. The impact of this collision will often cause:

Confusion. Will I have a job? If I do have a job, what role will I play? Am I not valued anymore? I knew the rules before but how do I thrive in this new way of working? Why aren’t we having more communication? Why aren’t we getting more training? What is going on with this change?
Doubt. Can we tackle the big system problems we have always known are there? Can more than just a few teams do this? Can we do this ourselves without outside help? Will things be better or worse than before? Can our leaders change their behaviors? Can anyone change?
Exhaustion. Initial enthusiasts and coaches will soon tire of bouncing up against resistance and lose hope.

The impact of confusion will cause frustration and immobility. Frustration turns up the volume of negativity while drowning out the positive. Doubt erodes trust in those leading the change. Finally, exhaustion causes enthusiasts and early adopters to only hear the negative and begin to give up.

As a side note, if organizational restructuring and letting people go also happens during this time, all of these emotions and the reactions to these emotions will be intensified.

4. The Narrowing Window of Choice

The period of disbelief, doubt, and exhaustion can only last so long.

As we bump up against initial resistance, there remains a strong gravitational pull back to the old way of working. In times of stress, we all go back to something familiar and comfortable.

There is often an attempt to combat confusion, doubt, and frustration with words of encouragement and of hope. While grateful for the inspiration, words are not what is needed now. It’s action.

With early enthusiasts and change catalysts getting tired, it’s not just any action that is required. Meaningful decisions around how to address the systemic issues identified when hitting initial resistance must be made.

The decisions and actions taken speaks to your workforce with a volume and intensity no words could ever convey. It proclaims loud and clear, “We are serious about making your work-life better and we are serious about creating an environment for you to do valuable things without friction.”

5. The Emergence of Confidence and Bravery

The revolution begins. Well, actually it means the real work of change can begin.

But this rolling up of sleeves, this vigor in addressing core issues, brings a buoyancy, a renewed lift, to the possibilities of bringing change to life. While initial lift was generated by change agents and early adopters, this renewed lift comes from action.

Words are amplified now as they are in concert with the real work being done to bring the “future organization” to life. When words and actions match, hope spreads like a virus.

What spreads best are stories of action. Stories of trying new things reinforce bravery. Stories of trying new things and “failing” begins to build resilience. Stories of success begins to increase confidence.

6. The Power of Collective Strength

With bravery and confidence in hand, the organization has the collective strength to finally break from the gravitational pull of the old ways of working. In fact, you will hear many begin to say they would never go back to the old way.

Where does this strength come from?

A strong sense of community. Nothing builds connection like experiencing the highs and lows of change together. Our stories bind us.
A natural affinity to sacrifice for others. Throughout the change, we have increased our ability to sense when a group or person is struggling so we slow down and care for them. No one is left behind.
A healthy cadence of change. We learned about expending energy, hitting resistance, regrouping around meaningful issues, and addressing the issues with renewed vigor. There is a healthy cycle of growth and rest.

From this moment on, the organization is in an athletic position, just waiting for the next challenge to be revealed.

7. The Welcoming of Change

The organization has finally arrived. Not to a destination but to a whole new way of thinking about change. While exhausting and challenging at times, new change muscles have been developed by working through meaningful issues together.

Now, when the inevitable challenge come knocking on our door, we can look it straight in the eyes and say, “Hey, we’ve tackled much harder things than this!”

When we fall back to old habits we catch ourselves and correct them. When the competitive landscape changes we can recognize it quickly and swarm around fresh opportunities. When some begin to tire or struggle, we naturally pick them up. When even newer ways of working are discovered we introduce them seamlessly with minimal stress.

Change is no longer traumatic but welcomed.


Future posts will capture my thoughts on how to guide an organization through this mental model by focusing on the energy necessary to bring it to life, the ceilings of resistance we bump up against, the sacrifice needed by all involved, the language used to create the spark, the leadership needed to guide us along the way, and how to make an environment of change permanent.

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