7 Steps to Get You Back on Track

Open just about any healthcare or business magazine, corporate report, or business best seller, and you’ll see the word “change” featured prominently. Countless articles are written on how to talk about it, negotiate it and get your employees to embrace it. If there is such a plethora of advice about how to accomplish change, then why aren’t we able to do it well? Why doesn’t the process go more smoothly?

Recently, a hospital consulting company I work for decided to abandon its strategic plan, which was only two years old. As the CEO told me, “It feels like a failure. We can’t get people to accept the changes.” I spent the afternoon trying to convince him that we were just in the toughest part of the process, as Rosabeth Moss-Kanter explains in a Harvard Business Review article: “Everything looks like a failure in the middle,” she writes. “Everyone loves inspiring beginnings and happy endings; it is just the middles that involve hard work.”

Unfortunately, I was unsuccessful at convincing him not to abandon the old plan. The outcome was a rewritten strategic plan, a re-issue of the document and an even larger communications initiative. It felt like a waste of time and effort.

Smarting from my defeat, I decided to re-read a lot of literature about change and try to distill the best thinking on how to accomplish it with less pain and angst. Here’s some of the best advice I found:

1. Keep the faith. Even true believers have doubts when things get difficult. When problems arise, we are tempted to give up and chase the next opportunity. If we are able to get past unexpected obstacles and hidden delays, success may be possible. When critics attack and partisan bickering makes the middle miserable, give the process some time and build stamina for the next push. Persistence can keep innovation alive.

2. Don’t let defensive feelings get in the way. People won’t change if they perceive the “need to change” to be an indictment of their past performance. Jim Hauden in The Art of Engagement believes that when changes are first introduced, we are likely to up our conscious and unconscious defense mechanisms. Hauden advocates saying out loud, as often as necessary, “The need to change is not an indictment of your past performance. What we did in the past worked, but it won’t work in the future. That’s why we need to change!”

3. Consider the ripple effect. There is no such thing as an isolated change in today’s business world: Change in one area will undoubtedly create change in other areas. Always ask, “What are the implications of making this change? What are the effects in other areas of the enterprise? How can we make sure everyone understands the implications?”

4. Give change agents a safe place for honest dialogue. Emotional and behavioral issues can derail change initiatives unless they are talked about and dealt with—dialogue is the oxygen of change. “Dialogue expands thinking, and learning requires thinking,” Hauden says. “When people are allowed to test their assumptions, learn from others and abandon the fear of needing to be exactly right, we unleash a search for ideas that changes mindsets and individual behaviors.”

5. Use checklists. You’ll feel much more positive about—and less overwhelmed by—change if you can prepare and manage the results more productively. Make lists that detail what has been accomplished and what still remains. (See the Q3 2012 Management Matters column for more information on how to make checklists.)

6. Be patient with yourself and others. Don’t add to your stress by trying to change everything overnight. I was reading an evaluation of a software product, and it was deemed “slow” because it took a full five seconds to load. In the flurry of our busy lives, we forget that change takes time, causing us to punish ourselves and others with unreasonable deadlines.

7. Share stories of what it’s like on the other side of the process. Almost 50 years of research shows that organizations live by their stories. Managers should capture and share stories of people living out the changes. Get people involved in talking about what’s working, what’s not and how things can be improved. On the other side of change, there’s celebration—help people envision that day.

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Author Information

Susan Williams, PhD

Williams is professor of management at Belmont University’s Jack C. Massey Graduate School of Business, and she also serves Belmont’s Center for Executive Education as a curriculum designer and faculty member. Her teaching interests include ethical decision making, continuous improvement and strategic thinking. More Articles by This Author »