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How to make change happen

Last week we spent a day at the beach, and as I walked along in the shallow waves, I was surprised at the strength of the water going opposite the tidal direction.  At the time the tide was going out, and certainly the water pulled back out to sea strongly.  But equally strong it seemed, were the waves heading into shore.  To the extent that a range of lovely shells, seaweeds and other not-so-lovely debris headed in on each wave and some was left on the beach for us to find.  In each set of waves, there was only a small difference in how far back to sea the water actually moved.  And yet the tide does goes in and then out to schedule. It struck me that this was an excellent analogy for strategy implementation (and usually that means change!).

When you are implementing something new, it often feels like those waves.  For every movement forward you make, there are many actions and behaviours pulling in the opposite direction, or just clinging to the existing ways of doing things.  It seems that for every piece of progress you make, there are equal areas of resistance.  This can be frustrating – especially if you have a time frame you are working to.

Most change management theory, in a nutshell,  works on persuading the people affected by the change that it is a good idea, and doing lots of communication about why you are changing and how it will all work.  This is all validated stuff and I’m not suggesting you shouldn’t do it.  However, in my experience, no matter how well this is all managed, there will be pockets of resistance and it will take longer than you would like to get things implemented.  So what can we learn from the sea about making change happen?  Here are my thoughts:

  1. It takes persistance over time.  Assume you will need to keep communicating about the changes for some time, and plan to keep monitoring behaviours and practices well into the future to ensure things do not slip back in the wrong direction.  I encourage clients to keep strategy actions in their plans until such time as they are able to be regularly monitored somewhere else in their day to day processes.
  2. You might feel like half the time you are going backwards. Progress might seem small at times, but as long as you are generally moving in the right direction you will get there.  Think the old class tale of the rabbit and the tortoise.
  3. There’s likely to be benefits from resistance.  Often the questions asked, or issues raised, are matters that could cause problems down the track or result in better outcomes.  I was recently  involved in a project where a recommended action was going to cost double the usual amount.  It seemed the best idea to the project team for various reasons, but when some resistance arose and questions were asked, it prompted some looking at alternatives and a far superior option was uncovered.  At the time it appeared to be slowing things down and putting at risk some of the timeframes, but actually the resistance turned out to be beneficial.
  4. If a massive force of nature like the sea can change direction every few hours, creating and implementing change in our organizations ought to be a doddle, oughtn’t it?  Of course it rarely is!  But take heart that if the sea can keep  moving and changing, surely your people can.  Keep insisting on the actions and behaviours you need from them and over time it will happen.
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