Change Is Hard, So Get Started Already!

“If there is no struggle, there is no progress.” — Frederick Douglass

Change is hard. Mr. Douglass knew all too well how struggle and change go hand in hand. Born a slave, he managed to find as much of an education as he could in those days. Once he could read, he read as much as he could, teaching his fellow slaves along the way. He grew in reputation so much that he was sent to a man that tried to beat the desire for freedom out of him. Yet, free he became.

He struggled his way to change, and for years afterward. Change and struggle could define his life better than any other two words.

“To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often.” — Winston Churchill

Change is hard. Mr. Churchill embraced how hard change is and used it to bring improvement to his country in a way lasts to this day. Known most for his work during both World Wars, the man dedicated 50 years of his life to make small improvements for England.

If they could find a way to clone the man, I’m sure he would win any election in a landslide.

Change is hard. It’s a cliche we’ve all said, and deep down we all believe it. Just like we all say that there must be a God, this is an idea we don’t really have to struggle to comprehend. It’s just a lot harder to live on a day in, day out basis. Having made a profession out of bringing change to organizations, my friends and I know this all too well.

Before the Information Age, one of the main reasons why change was believed to be so hard was the lack of information. While I appreciate learning new things every day, I just have a hard time believing this today. Wikipedia exists for the purpose of easy education. Seminars are taught every weekend to spread big ideas. Bloggers digest and disseminate info in small chunks if you don’t have time or money for training.

So, if we know how to bring effective change to our places of work, why can’t we manage to make it happen?

“Even though I have been lucky enough to spend most of my career at successful companies considered to be innovative, I have found that few employees jump at the chance to perform their jobs differently.” — Karen Frankola.

In that post, Frankola says that across industries, employees shift blame to avoid change. Their boss won’t support them. They don’t have the resources they need. It’s not a good time. Her piece made complete sense to me. I’m in the middle of a transformation project where knowledge isn’t the cause of struggle.

The struggle is all around us, so much so that an equation to measure how well your organizational change is going to go (which seems a little too formulaic, but many times if fits). This post by Jason Little is a little pithy, but the point littered all over his post is simple: you’re going to have an abundance of reasons to struggle with change at work. If you need to find someone or something to blame, they’re available.

Here’s the good news portion of the post.

Knowing how hard change is shouldn’t be a source of frustration because you’re not alone. I won’t dare sit here and give you 3-5 simple points and expect you to turn the ship around in a heartbeat. As I’ve mentioned for the first 500 words, change and struggle go together. There are some ideas you can explore, however, to augment the change you are trying to bring.

Who’s in charge here?

According to the International Personal Management Association, employee productivity increased by just over 22 percent after training. If you combine training with coaching, though, there was an increase in productivity of 88 percent. That supports the notion of knowledge taking you only so far. It’s not enough for your company to learn how to be better. Someone needs to walk with you while applying new learnings.

This may seem like an advertisement for the Agile consulting industry — and can definitely help if the need arises — but that’s not your only option. Often, a capable coach is right under your nose and just needs to be empowered to organize the effort.

The perfect coach is a myth, but there are some things to look for. Fearless passion, insatiable desires for personal improvement and servant-like humility should be on the top of the list. Trust me, that person exists and is ready to get started.

What are you trying to change?

When I’m introduced to a team or group of teams that need some help, my favorite part of the job is the initial interviews. Have some in large groups, solicit information through anonymous surveys, and take plenty of people to lunch along the way. You don’t need to conduct a full autopsy of the team, but learn who they are and what they want to change.

Of course, what they don’t want to change is just as important as what they do. It tells you some of the core values they have, and provides some insight into the battles they’ve faced together. Cultures are formed around these ideas. Plus, if you help them call out what’s going well, they don’t have to start out feeling like a piece of garbage.

When you figure out what needs to change, write a mission statement for your transformation. If anyone wants to question why an activity is happening, point them back to the mission. It rallies the troops, and if you wrote it with the team there will be no arguing when you need to pull some tough levers of change.

What’s your change MVP?

I really loved this piece on change, and how it should be viewed as a home renovation. When my wife and I want to freshen things up around our house, we don’t burn the place to the ground and rebuild from scratch. We pick a room that needs the most work and pick something we can afford right then. Along the way, we may find something larger going on, and that means more money and time. You can’t know until you get started.

It’s hard to sell this idea, but that’s how you should get started with your company. There’s no guarantee it will go smoothly, and often there will be some huge pain points along the way. You will get frustrated and want to quit. We all know we can’t once we’ve started, so just get going.

Scrum is a powerful change agent, and not just for software companies. Taking work apart into smaller pieces, adding some transparency and taking a peek will reveal plenty. Often, I suggest starting off by the book and then adapting as we go. Reason this works so well is you can pick a minimum viable product of change and start there.

It may not be where you spend most of your time, but picking a place to start quickly will allow you to get into a rhythm and start uncovering the real problems. It also allows you some forward momentum with little planning. Just like working software is the most important part of any agile process, “working work” should be the only thing you focus on in organizational change. Just look for somewhere to start.

There are so many more things to consider, but I’d rather just encourage you to get started. Would love to hear your stories of change, what your next steps were once you got going.

Happy struggling!


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