When it comes to generating change, there are two types of teams… or more accurately, two types of leaders: those who stay the course and those who don’t!
At a simple level, you could say that any change initiative goes through three key steps. You could call them different things, but in essence, they are:
Creation, Execution, and Breakthrough.
The first step – Creation – is the easiest and most fun. It’s about imagining a better future state, creating new possibilities, and committing to them. It is about setting the course. If you do it right, your team will emerge from this step feeling highly optimistic, energized, hopeful, and eager to achieve a better future for itself. Optimism causes people to feel empowered, bold, and invincible.
The second step – Execution – is the toughest step of any change, both physically and mentally. In fact, most teams fail the test of this step. In more cases then not, they abandon their dreams, aspirations, and change altogether.
Step two requires hard physical work. It is the epitome of building the airplane while flying it. You have to start projects in new and untested areas, do things differently, challenge existing thinking, approaches, and systems, and get the skeptical and cynical people on board. And, all this, while continuing to do the daily work you did before.
Step two requires a tremendous balancing act. However, the toughest thing is that it requires great faith (that often feels blind) – in your bold future, your new and untested strategies, and in your ability to achieve them.
It would be an understatement to describe the experience of step two as pushing a rock up a steep hill.
Some leaders love the thrill of a new idea, fad, or beginning, especially when it helps them to engage and motivate their teams around a new purpose. As long as their effort continues to progress with even mild success, and managers and employees continue to feel good about the process and engage in its activities, these leaders stay engaged, and they continue to invest their own commitment, energy, time, and resources in the process.
However, the minute things get tough or messy, instead of doubling down and leveraging challenges as opportunities to accelerate change, these leaders quickly become skeptical, lose their commitment, energy and resolve, and eventually they simply get distracted by other activities, lose interest, disengage and move on to the next new shiny thing.
It is easier to stay engaged and focused at the beginning of significant change initiatives when everyone is at the initial excitement stage, there is increased goodwill all around, and people tend to be on their best behavior in areas such as trust, teamwork, and collaboration.
However, if you take on any Big Hairy Audacious Goal, it is inevitable that at some point in the process, you will have to confront your barriers to change. Marathon runners describe this as hitting the wall. It’s the moment, about halfway through the run, when overwhelming fatigue kicks in and you feel like you may not have what it takes to finish the race. It’s a devastating and discouraging feeling. If you buy into this, it can really hurt your performance. However, if you anticipate this phenomenon, you can be ready for it and get through the tough patches with minimal distractions in focus, commitment, and effectiveness.
It is the same with any change initiative!
The wall often manifests as people feeling overwhelmed with keeping up with their existing jobs while pursuing future work, initiatives taking too much time and energy to launch or demonstrate results, and people beginning to disengage because of growing frustrations, skepticism, and doubt.
The leaders who trust themselves, their vision, and their process push forward and stay the course, no matter what. They are the ones who move on to step three – Breakthrough – and achieve extraordinary results.
Unfortunately, most leaders are not good at staying the course. Many leaders simply don’t know how to stay focused when they don’t know what to do next. They tend to stall, stop, and eventually give up. Others can’t tolerate things getting worse – before they get better – so they react badly to chaos, messy situations, and unpredicted challenges, which are inevitable in any worthwhile change.
Most leaders and teams fall short or outright fail to achieve their intended change outcomes not because they are incapable or because they go all-out and fail, but rather because they don’t stay the course; they give up at the most critical time in the process.
And, to add insult to injury, most leaders don’t take responsibility for their shortcomings. They don’t admit: “We just didn’t stay the course!” Instead, they tend to justify their failure with excuses like: “There is too much going on“, “The change initiative is interfering with our core business or results”, and “People are no longer on-board“.
The cost of not staying the course is not much higher than failing to achieve higher levels of performance and results. It is in the overt and covert sentiments of cynicism and resignation that come in the aftermath of defeat.
To any leader that wants to generate change in his/her organization, I suggest:
Stay the course no-matter-what or don’t start at all!