Stuck happens!iStock_000017594671Small

If your change is big, it is only a matter of time before you’ll be stuck. It may be early on. Or, things may seem to be on track and moving along when suddenly they start going awry. Or, you may be moving toward the finish line when progress just stops, or even begins a backslide.

Stuck happens.

So, if stuck happens, what do you do to get unstuck?

What you shouldn’t do is:

  • Shoot the messenger
  • Panic
  • Start pointing fingers and finding blame

    Begin by finding a quiet place…seriously. When stuck happens, don’t jump into action. At best, you may fix some symptoms.

    Start with some thoughtful reflection. What is it that is telling you that the change is stuck? Is it a feeling? Are there symptoms that you can call out, put your finger on? Are there actual metrics?

    You may want to write them down, white board them, put them on stickies… But don’t jump up and try to fix them. Remember, what you are seeing are symptoms, not the “thing” or “things” that are actually threatening change success.

    What you need to uncover is the root cause. This may require you to look at the symptoms through a variety of lenses. Is it that the intent of the change isn’t clear, and different people are–in fact–working on different versions of the same change? Is it that people are shaking their heads Yes while waiting for the change to go away…they are not truly committed to it? Is it that the change is a really, really good idea, but you and/or others don’t see it as imperative? Is it that people just don’t have the capacity for yet one more change? Is it that they have put all of the things that are needed in place, but haven’t planned for–or worked on–the needed changes in thinking and acting that will actually deliver the benefits of the change?

Ask questions. Dig deeper. If it will help, find someone who is not invested in the success of the change to help you explore the reasons you are stuck.

What you are really digging for are not the behaviors that have brought the change to this point, but the mindsets that are driving those behaviors. 

Stuck is the result of how you and/or others are thinking about the change, and what is being done (or not) as a result of that thinking! If you only work to change the behaviors, you will find yourself stuck again…perhaps even more deeply than you are now.

Once you understand why the change has become stuck, you can figure out a path to getting it back on track. You may need to go back to the beginning, starting with developing greater clarity about the change. (I have seen this be the case, even in Fortune 50 companies.) It may mean that you need to let go of things, or people, that you have been holding onto for many years. it may mean that you need to strengthen the consequences: positive for those who are actively supporting the change, and negative for those who are not. It may mean any number of changes in thinking and action required of you for the change to become unstuck.

Whatever it means, plan it. Then do it.

If the change is really that important, then as difficult as it may be to get unstuck, you are going to have to take the necessary action. Even though the cost of doing so may be high, the cost of not doing so will be even higher.

Stuck happens. Becoming unstuck is up to you.

What have you done when you have found your changes stuck? What has, or hasn’t, worked? Comment below. Thanks!



Who Leaves When the Change Drags On?


iStock_000008318174SmallAll too often, the answer is, The wrong people keep leaving…the very people who can quickly adapt to the change, and can help you build the momentum that you need for the change to succeed. 

A few years after deregulation of the telephone industry I heard the following story. One of the old-line phone companies had not achieved the change results they were going for. They purportedly told a consulting firm, In the old days we were an elephant. We wanted to become a cheetah in the new marketplace; instead we have become an elephant on Slim Fast.  

Why does this happen?

The answer is quite simple. Change disrupts people’s lives. Drag it on, and they find themselves adrift in that turbulent, uncertain state. Some hope to wait it out. Some flounder. Some fight it. And some–those who are most capable of changing–take control of their own situations. They find jobs elsewhere.

If you are a mission-driven organization, and your most resilient people are aligned with your mission, they may not be quite as quick to “jump ship.” But even then, they will not tolerate the uncertainty forever. They will find another place to serve your mission, or find another mission they are passionate about supporting.

In either case, what you are left with as you continue to pursue your change is a workforce (and, in the case of nonprofits, possibly even a volunteer force) that becomes less and less capable of supporting your change effort.

What can you do about it?

First a disclaimer: your ability to take some of the following actions may be affected by legal and/or contractual constraints.

If the change is really that important, you don’t want it to drag on forever. Transformational changes can sometimes take years to deliver their promised benefits, especially in larger organizations. But even then, people will see an accelerating momentum as positive, and lagging momentum as a sign of potential failure.

So how do you launch the change and move it forward to keep the momentum going, and to keep the people who will help you do so?

  • Be clear about the intent of your change. You need a clear, complete, concise, and compelling expression of that intent.
  • Build leadership understanding, commitment, and alignment around that intent. Your leadership team sets the tone for the organization. If they are working at cross-purposes, or are not demonstrating full support for the change, it cannot move forward effectively.
  • Identify the “keepers.”  Here there are two things that are important to consider. First, who are those who are most resilient, most capable of making the changes that you are pursuing? Second, who are the people that either are now or most likely will be aligned with the new ways of thinking and behaving required by your change initiative?
  • Enlist people in the change: (Follow this link to read my post on enlisting people.) Your “keepers” should be among the early people whom you enlist.
  • Engage people in the change. If change is a disruption in a person’s expectations, then engaging them in it gives them back a sense of control. When engaging people, be clear about the parameters of the engagement. For example, “I am not asking you whether we should make this change. I do want your help in figuring out how we carry it out successfully in your area of the organization.”
  • Keep the change moving forward. Work it!: You don’t become an Olympian by going to the gym twice a week. You don’t succeed at major change by making it a part-time activity. You need to commit your “best and brightest.” You need to make it a focus of your own time, attention, and action as a leader. You need to move it forward as quickly as people can adapt to it. You need to take other things off the plate if they are draining resources (including, but not limited to, time, attention, and adaptation capacity). Don’t wait for consensus; major change doesn’t happen that way. Don’t wait for all the answers; they aren’t there. Don’t expect to get everything right, because you won’t; acknowledge and learn from the mistakes. Don’t expect everyone to get on board, because they won’t; the best thing you can do is to respectfully help those who won’t make the transition get out of the way.

    What has worked for you in keeping the right people on board during highly disruptive change? Comment below.

How Are You Showing Up?



white room centeredHow did you show up today? What about yesterday? Is there any reason to expect that you will show up any differently tomorrow?

During change, how you show up makes a difference for the journey, and for the outcome. It makes a difference for you. And, it makes a difference for those who are influenced by you–whether formally or informally–along the way.

Super Hero: The super-hero is often a Type-A. He arrives with all of the answers, with the strength to do whatever it takes, and with no time to waste. If there is any emotion, it is generally anger: anger at mistakes others make (he doesn’t make mistakes); anger at things not going according to plan; anger at counsel he doesn’t want to hear.

Super-Heroes may make good protagonists in film and pulp fiction. They do not make good change leaders or facilitators. If you are engaged in a big change, you are not going to be able to anticipate everything; you won’t have all the answers. Others will make mistakes. So will you. Time is well spent in reflection, thoughtful consideration, and serious dialogue, not constantly racing forward. Sometimes the best advice you can get is absolutely what you wish you weren’t hearing. Real change can generate anger. But it also generates laughter, tears, joy, sorrow…the full gamut of emotions comes into play along the way.

Preacher: The preacher sees the change as affecting the rank-and-file. “You have to change,” she extols every chance she gets. “This isn’t going to work unless you get on board.” “We need you going all out to make the needed changes on time and within budget.”

People listen to preachers. Then, sometimes, they ask questions. They ask, “Don’t you have to change too, Preacher?” They ask, “Is this, ‘Do as I say, not as I do’?”  They ask, “Why does all the change roll downhill?” Big change isn’t just about everyone else. If it’s your change, it has to start with you.

Lackadaisical Leader: She’s sent out the word. This change is really big. It is really important. It is “make or break.” We all need to take it seriously. We all need to keep it at the forefront of our thinking, and our doing. Yes, we have to keep doing what we have been doing. And, we have to do whatever this change demands as well. There is no way around it.

Then she returns to running the business. “People will tell me if there’s a problem,” she thinks. “I get my weekly/bi-weekly/monthly updates; if an emergency pops up in-between, I’m sure I will know about it right away.”

If this change is genuinely important, act that way. Ask questions every time you see someone who is working on executing it. Make it a priority on every phone call, in every email, and on each meeting’s agenda. Know what is going on.

Teammate: He wants everyone to feel like they are part of the decisions, not just part of the execution. He huddles for hours, listening, exploring, questioning, waiting for a decision to emerge. When it doesn’t, he schedules the next huddle.

There is a role for the team in the change. And, there is a role for the leader. As a change leader, you need to listen, explore, and question. You need to seek out the counsel of the best and the brightest. And, you need to lead. You need to make tough decisions. You need to move the change forward.

Charismatic: People will follow her to the ends of the earth. She has that undefinable characteristic about her that draws people in and holds them there. She can lead them to a spectacular success, or to a devastating failure; they’ll follow her anywhere.

Unfortunately, that’s not what you need. Yes, you want people to follow your lead. But you don’t want them to do so blindly. You want them to question, to challenge, to voice their concerns so that you can address them. You want them to point out when you are about to make (or have made) a wrong turn. You want them committed first and foremost to the future, to the successful execution of the change, not to you.

Clearly, there are other ways to show up during change. Some will contribute to a successful journey; some will not. Here are some ways you might consider as you think about how you show up.

  • Courageous
  • Disciplined
  • Focused
  • Committed
  • Reflective
  • Engaged
  • Empathetic
  • In touch
  • Decisive
  • Positive
  • Equanimous
  • Passionate

    What other ways might you consider showing up? Add your thoughts below.



Resilience Is Critical When Facing Challenge.


This is a personal story.

In 2009 I began mentoring a high school student. The initial connection was our shared interest in photography, but a large part of the mentoring grew out of the abuse Brandon was experiencing at home, and the assaults he, as a gay man, was suffering at school. Two years later I took him in when his family threw him out of his home. Today Brandon is my son, legally as well as emotionally.

This week we were interviewed by Dr. Linda Hoopes on her program, Resilience Radio. Listen to our story, and the role that resilience played, using the link below.

Resilience Radio Interview with Dr. Linda Hoopes

Change Isn’t an Intellectual Exercise.


Picture1Well of course not! Who would think that? After all, falling in love, or falling out of love… The loss of a loved one. Moving to a new home, whether across the city or around the world. A new job. A termination. All have an emotional component to them. They may touch the heart, the gut, the head, or any combination of the three.

Of course change isn’t an intellectual exercise. Who would think that?

Too often, we all do. We fail to recognize and honor the cathartic nature of the changes we are facing, or the changes we are driving into our organizations. If we do acknowledge that there is more than an intellectual component, it is generally about “the others going through the change.” Rarely (especially for men), are we honest about our own emotional roller coaster ride.

This post is not about the psychology behind the failure to acknowledge the need for–and allow–catharsis. That’s outside my area of expertise. What I do want to write about is why acknowledging and allowing catharsis–for ourselves as well as others–is so important.

Let’s go back for a moment to the definition of change that underlies all of my work and my writing. Change: a disruption in expectations. If change is a disruption in expectations, the bigger the disruption, the more challenging the change will be to successfully execute.

If I come to work in the morning and the coffee maker isn’t working, it may drive a change in my routine. I expected to have coffee when I sat down at my desk; now I need to run back out, or place an order to have some coffee delivered, or settle for water. Chances are, the disruption is not gong to last long; I may grumble about it at the water cooler, but even that is not likely in most situations.

On the other hand, what if I arrive back from vacation to find someone else’s name on what was my office door, someone else sitting in what was my Executive High-Back Pneumatic Leather Chair? Unless I’ve been promoted, the disruption is profound, and the reaction most likely visceral.

Why is it so important to–appropriately–address all aspects of that reaction? For the same reason that it is so important for organizational leaders to recognize and allow their own cathartic reaction. For the same reason it is so important for each of us to recognize and allow our own cathartic reaction to the major changes we experience.

It doesn’t matter the catalyst of the change…work or personal, or even societal; it doesn’t matter if you see the change as positive or negative. This is one of the incredible, fascinating things about change. It just matters how big the disruption is. The bigger the change, the more critical addressing the cathartic component of it will be.

For some people, the following is useful to help understand this.

Imagine that what you are letting go of is in a room. Now walk out of that room, and close the door behind you, but don’t let go of the doorknob. Are you able to move forward? It doesn’t matter how many new doors are open in front of you. It doesn’t matter what they offer. If you are unable or unwilling to let go–to experience catharsis–you have no chance of moving forward to those new possibilities.

Why is catharsis necessary to let go?

Whether in a healthy or dysfunctional environment, over time we settle into a set of expectations. We establish a relationship with the elements of the environment: the people; the behaviors; perhaps the sounds, the temperature, the smells. We may deeply engage with it, or find a way of being disconnected even when in its midst. We know the patterns, the pace, the rhythm.

Perhaps it is an environment of our own making. A relationship with a significant other, maybe a family. Or an organization that we have “grown up in,” advancing into a position of authority where we have spent decades shaping it into what it is today. We “know the drill;” it has our best insights, experiences, mistakes, and successes embedded in it.

And now it is going to change. Dramatically.

Letting go of any relationship that has these kinds of roots in us is not an intellectual exercise. Is there an intellectual component? Of course. But there is so much more.

The paradox that makes this so hard for business leaders is that they are called on to destroy that which they have created so that it can survive and thrive. “The old paradigm is dead. Long live the new paradigm.” Those who cannot make this transition–truly change the way in which they relate to the past so that they can fully invest themselves in creating the new–will not succeed. Nor will the change they are trying to drive. There is a reason they are called leaders. If they are unable or unwilling to transform themselves, they cannot lead the transformation of their organizations.

It’s no different for personal change. Often in working with clients who are going through a highly disruptive personal change, we will work to create a ritual of letting go. (I have also done this with a few organizational clients.) They find that they need to mourn the past–even if it contains a long and dysfunctional history–in order to embrace the journey into the future.

Often, the bright promise of the future–personal and/or organizational–offers a compelling pull. But we can only move so far toward it without letting go of what is behind us. And, at the end of the day, that letting go is never easy. If we are to truly let it go, there may be a physical component to what we have to release. It may or may not include a spiritual element. And, in that letting go there will always be catharsis.

What is your experience with catharsis and change? Comment on this blog. Share your experiences.





I Like This Change. It Will Easily Succeed!


Picture101Hopefully you will not be surprised to find out that liking a change and the ease of achieving success are not at all related!

First, let’s clear up some mis-perceptions. There are very few if any changes that are inherently positive. Whether or not a change is positive is–in fact–in the eye of the beholder.

You may see the move to Office 365 as positive; it helps you access your files from multiple devices at any time and in any place. At the same time, I may see it as negative; now I need to subscribe to Office, instead of just paying a one-time licensing fee. If you won a multi-million dollar lottery, you may see it as negative because of all the major disruptions it will cause in your life and your relationships. If I won, I might perceive it as positive because of all the new possibilities it might offer for the work that I want to do in the world.

Today’s blog is not about positive change; it is about positively perceived change.

Next, let me credit the source of the graphic above, as well as my understanding of what I am presenting here. I was first introduced to this concept when I trained with Conner Partners back in the late 1980’s; what I learned then remains a solid set of principles to apply in the 2010’s.

If the change is big, and you perceive it as positive, beware! Every day, whether at work or in our personal lives, tens of thousands of us–perhaps millions–start on changes of this nature. And, every day, tens of thousands of us–perhaps millions–check out of the very changes we enthusiastically embraced days, weeks, months, or even years ago. So what goes wrong?

Perhaps, in specific cases, one could identify “what went wrong.” But, most of the time, the problem is not that anything specific went wrong other than that those going through the change did not understand the pattern underlying it.

So, let me let you in on that pattern.

When we begin a really big change in our life that we perceive as positive, we are beginning it in a state of “uninformed optimism.” In marriage, and often in a new job, this is referred to as  “the honeymoon.” We see everything in a positive light.

It’s a honeymoon because we don’t know what we don’t know.

Uninformed optimism is general. “This is great! I have a new job. I am earning significantly more money. I have a great title. I like the people that I report to, and the ones that report to me. I am a lot closer to the office than I was in my old job.”

BUT… Uninformed optimism is followed by informed pessimism! In big changes–whether they be personal, organizational, or even societal–this is the inevitable reality. We are optimistic because we are going into the change with a significant level of naivete.

As reality hits home, pessimism increases, and it gets pretty specific. “I have a new job…and instead of working 40 hours a week I am working ten hours a day, seven days a week.” “I may be earning significantly more money, but I am paying an incredible price for doing so.” “What’s in a title?” “I liked the people that I report to…until I discovered that they don’t want to hear anything that I have to say.” “The people that report to me smile, and shake their heads yes, and then go and do whatever they want anyway.” “I am closer to the office in distance…but the traffic in this direction makes my commute twice as long.”

What happens as pessimism increases? Enthusiasm wanes. Resistance increases. Doubts arise. The very change that you were so excitedly driving forward (or had eagerly jumped on board to support) becomes questionable. Do you really want to do this? Are you really able to succeed at it? Is it worth the cost?

The most important thing to keep in mind at this point in the cycle is that informed pessimism is not a signal that something is wrong. Rather, it is an inevitable part of the cycle. When you find yourself here you know that in actuality, you are making forward progress!

When people reach this point, checking out is not uncommon; they only real question is whether they will check out publicly or privately. Examples of checking out publicly include such things as filing for divorce, or submitting your resignation. Checking out privately might be entering marriage counseling while carrying on an affair, or closing the office door and spending hours on end surfing the web.

If we haven’t checked out, as circumstances become clearer, pessimism tends to begin to decline. We enter a period of hopeful realism. There are fewer surprises. We can see the obstacles to successfully achieving the desired outcomes of the change, and can see our way around, over, through them. We know that there is still a lot of hard work ahead of us, but are also increasingly confident that the hard work will pay off.

Following Hopeful Realism comes Informed Optimism. At this point we are experiencing real, measurable successes. We still need to work to sustain them. Sometimes–especially if stressed or tired–we might find ourselves slipping back into old ways of thinking or old habits. But when we do, we see it (or others point it out to us), and we bring ourselves back into alignment with the desired end results.

Completion is achieved when you are living in what was once your desired future… It is no longer a dream, or a hope. It is the way things are.

What is your experience with carrying out changes that you perceived as positive? How have you been lulled by the honeymoon of uninformed optimism, or put off-track by the inevitable arrival of informed pessimism? Comment. Share your story.

Work Your Plan One Week at a Time.


calendarUndertaking a big change is daunting; it can seem overwhelming. In past blogs we have talked about different aspects of planning. Today the focus is on executing against that plan.

In general, my recommendation is to work your plan one week at a time. (Here I am focusing on change at the individual level…if you are leading your organization through change, much of what I am offering here can be applied–with some translation–as well.)

Momentum is important during change. Move too fast and you may get all of the pieces in place, but never achieve the actual outcomes that you are seeking. Move too slow, and your change is likely to grind to a halt.

Taking a week-by-week approach, with your installation (what you are putting in place) and realization (what you are actually setting out to achieve) milestones in mind helps to maintain momentum. Think about it. In the next month I am going to update my resume doesn’t quite drive action the same way as This week I am going to make 15 networking calls. 

You may or may not have any realization milestones that you plan to meet each week; you should definitely have installation milestones for yourself. Quoting from Wikipedia, “A milestone is one of a series of numbered markers placed along a road or boundary…Milestones are constructed to provide reference points along the road. This can be used to reassure travelers that the proper path is being followed, and to indicate either distance traveled or the remaining distance to a destination.”

Using milestones on a weekly basis allows you to know not only that you are actively doing things, but that you are on “the proper path.”

So why not create milestones for every day?

Generally, unless you are in a position to control virtually every aspect of your day, daily milestones become burdensome; they are too easy to not achieve as other day-to-day things come up; and, the discouragement of not achieving them can drain energy and actually get in the way of forward momentum.

That being said, I will sometimes work with a client to create “buckets of activity,” with the goal of accomplishing something out of each bucket on a daily basis. For example, someone who is looking to build a brand presence using social media might have one bucket for Twitter, one for LinkedIn, one for their business’s Facebook page, etc. Rather than spending every spare minute for a week strengthening their LinkedIn presence–and losing connection with their followers on the other media–my recommendation is to ensure that they do at least one thing out of each of the other buckets every day as well.

Your weekly milestones allow you flexibility over when you undertake your change-related tasks. If today is lost to unexpected overtime at work, or unanticipated disruptions at home (or both), you still have the remainder of the week to complete the work that you have set out for yourself.

What happens if, week after week, you are not meeting your milestones? If you find yourself in this situation, it is likely that one of two things is going on.

  1. You are setting your weekly expectations too aggressively relative to what you are able to deliver. You either need to re-calibrate your expectations of what you can get done in a week, or you need to look at what you can take off the plate so that you can meet your targets. Then, you need to actually take things off the plate!
  2. Your change is a good idea, but not imperative. The other things in your life that are taking your time, energy, focus, etc. away from this change outweigh the importance of the change you are working on. It is time to either lower your expectations for this change, or to put it aside.

If, on the other hand, you are completing everything you have set out to achieve mid-week each week, you should be accelerating your plan.

There is another reason to work your plan one week at a time…things don’t always go as planned. I am currently working with a client whose “buckets” include addressing certain aspects of his health. When he encountered an unanticipated delay in his surgery he had two choices…push his entire plan back by months, or accelerate other aspects of the plan to fill in the intervening weeks. My encouragement is, always, to maintain the forward momentum.

Finally, working your plan one week at a time helps you maintain your boundaries. It tells you when to take a break and rest for the next week; it helps you to avoid burn-out. When the only thing that we have in mind is the desired end state, the urge to be constantly working can drive us in unhealthy ways. Being able to say, I have accomplished what I set out to do this week. I am proud of myself, and can see the progress. And, now I deserve a break, is a much healthier approach.

For a mini-case study of how I applied this approach to a major change in my life, email me at [email protected]

What is your experience when working your change plans? Please comment, and/or add your own story.