Making Change Stick: Moving Beyond the Rah! Rah!

What does it take to make change stick? I'm talking about a month after the organizational retreat. The mission that was so clear over coffee and muffins now seems like a lifetime ago. What happened? In this issue we will discuss what it takes to keep momentum building around organizational change, especially after your people have a glimpse at the light at the end of the tunnel.

Anyone who has ever successfully done anything that requires personal effort, like losing weight, quitting smoking, or going back to college at forty eight, knows the difference between insight and action.

Insight is hope minus action, a sense that something new is possible. It's moving beyond skepticism, doubt and even resignation. Hope is that first step to initiate any meaningful organizational or individual change. The dilemma with hope, however, is it will not "carry the day", or even a few days after that inspiring offsite.

That Intoxicating Feeling

Organizations do many things to bring insight to their staff — retreats and team buildings are two examples where renewed hope becomes the intoxicating elixir. "Maybe this can become a fun place to work again", or "I really enjoy my job" and even a senior management perspective that "We can become an effective, high-performing team." This feeling can lift the burdens and annoyances off the collective shoulders of an entire organization — until the next morning.

All it takes to kill hope is step back into your office. The "hope zapper" starts ticking. Check your 150 emails (delete 125, scan 15 quickly and read 10), check your voicemail and attend two meetings. You're done. By the end of the day, you could swear how you felt yesterday must have been a dream. Does any of this sound familiar?

Good News and the Bad News

The good news is you weren't dreaming. The bad news is the honeymoon is over before it started. "So what's the point of inspiring me only to have it go nowhere?" you ask.

Change is hard because people overestimate the value of what they have—and underestimate the value of what they may gain by giving that up.

— James Belasco and Ralph Stayer Flight of the Buffalo (1994)

I wanted to change the world. But I have found that the only thing one can be sure of changing is oneself.

— Aldous Huxley

What do these two quotes point to? Simply, that change is personal, even organizational change is personal. Organizations don't change. People change. And this requires two very basic yet difficult traits to bring to the table — patience and perseverance. Here's a direct quote from one of my customers prior to a recent organizational retreat:

"What will be the follow up to this retreat? We're spending a lot of time and money on this. My experience with previous workshops that were similar to this one is that there was no on-going follow up, so, generally, the participants (including me) went back to their old habits, ways of relating to others, etc."

Confusing Insight with Action

The bottom line is too often we confuse awareness with action. We set the wrong collective expectations for people — that somehow the work ends once the problems been identified. One of the key messages I deliver over and over again in organizations offsites is "the work begins when we're done." Not a popular message but the truth.

As stated in the client quote above "there was no on-going follow-up." In essence, the organization (both management and staff) went back to sleep. Why? Because it's hard work to change behavior, have the honest conversations about commitment and accountability. It's much easier to commiserate about too much work and not enough time.

Where do you start?

The next time you find yourself inspired to make changes, consider that the feeling will not get you there — not even close. It's about having the patience and perseverance to keep revisiting the need for change in the face of nothing changing. Nothing is going to make that easy, but that's at the heart of where change is possible.

Are you inspired? I didn't think so. Now get back in there and do the hard work that will lead to the change you saw was possible.


"Patience and perseverance have a magical effect before which difficulties disappear and obstacles vanish."

— John Quincy Adams