Have you ever seen a change vaporize?
You’ve probably seen it before, a change occurs, and then slowly (or even quickly) things revert back to old ways? Seems like the change just vaporized, even though it was a good idea, and people seemed to be really on board. Sometimes a seemingly unrelated crisis causes a change to be "undone". This lack of sustainability usually comes from the edges of the change, not from the mainstream. Forces from the outside create a reaction from within that goes back to old ways of doing things. This doesn’t happen because people are bad or uncaring, but usually out of good reasons or responding quickly with behaviors that have been proven in the past. You can create changes that are more resilient and can better weather the pressures of a dynamic and even unstable environment. Here are some tips.
Build support with key stakeholders.
I have seen people change in amazing ways simply to have people around them pressure them to go back to the way they were before. The same happens for significant system changes. Customers or other stakeholders often insist that the people involved respond to them in the same ways. Time spent with key stakeholders in creating agreements about how they will respond to the change and how they will support the change is incredibly valuable.
Build safety nets for people working in new ways.
Just like high-wire performers, it is great to practice with a net. Changes in organization do not need to be life or death for key performers. If the stakes are high enough, they will revert to tried and true behaviors in crisis. The way around is to provide support, whether it is in peer networks, mentors, human resource systems, or others. The idea here is to make the change as safe as possible for people to stretch their new skills.
Anchor and unanchor your new system.
All social systems are a web. Anything that you change in an organization is linked to many other systems and people. Spend time understanding these connections. Then, build new connections that anchor the new system, and remove old ones that anchor the old system. Avoiding this can be like trying to sail away from the dock with the mooring lines still attached.
Release the old and deal with the loss.
Every change, no matter how good, has some element of loss. Some have huge elements of loss. A large system change becomes very personal at this level, as people have their own feelings about what and how large those losses are. Build time and skills into your system that allow people to deal with the loss through support groups or organization rituals.
Be bold – burn some bridges.
Yes. That’s right. Commit to the change and cut off the escape routes. Even symbolic acts, when done with intention among the people involved, can create a mass of power to sustain change. The key here is to be public and be clear about what you are doing and why. Communications and commitment are a powerful combination.
Jeff Evans is an executive coach and founder of The Gaian Group, an organization that helps individuals and companies transform their leadership potential.