Eight Change Survival Tips for Those Leading It

By Chris Preston

Anyone who has watched Groundhog Day will be empathising with Bill Murray right now – locked in an endless loop of sameness with no end in sight. The irony, of course, with the film is that every day IS different as Murray’s character bounces around the confines of the small town he’s stuck in, trying desperately to elicit change, but with little impact.

Sound familiar? It’s a total dichotomy at the moment – a huge amount of change happening in a paralysed world, where society has moved from high panic to low-energy chronic. The second spike, despite all the warnings, has hit us hard, and we are seeing people sleep-walking into the next phase. For those trying hard to make change happen, this is less than ideal – it’s tough enough at the best of times, but with an apathetic audience, it’s even harder. We wrote about ‘changing change management’ some time ago, and looked at the fundamentals that are critical to factor into any change process.

But now, it’s a case of running the car on empty – we’ve witnessed, first hand, people burning out as they desperately try to drive things forwards and keep momentum. There are far too many people out there that are pushing, pushing, pushing… and it’s damn tiring. We’ve also talked and written about the need to pause, recharge and manage personal energy levels to avoid the inevitable crash. Bringing these two things together – change and recharge – we’ve created a short guide for anyone facing the Sisyphean task of making headway against the gale of COVID and its associated impact. Here are eight things you can incorporate into your approach:

1. Play change like a steel guitar – the two opposite poles of change are ‘technical’ and ‘emotional’. Blend them, and lean on them to get the results you need. Shifting from a ‘it has to be this’ approach to ‘this is why I need it to be this’ rapidly changes the tone and the pace. Don’t stick in one camp, flex and move through the spectrum mindfully. Ask yourself, what do people need right now? Is it certainty and structure or is it understanding and empathy?

2. Make your change local – with so much chaos across the world, the best laid plans of even the cleverest mice will be hard pressed to survive. So work with this reality – think local, think small, be practical and crack the problem or opportunity in bite-sized chunks. One of our clients has parked a major system implementation, not fully – they’ve recognised that only two teams absolutely need it, and the rest can (and want to) wait.

3. Focus on your percentages – how much of your change is reactive? How much is proactive? And, how much is about cultural progression? If the first one is bigger than the second two, it’s time to stop and recognise you are actually leading a crisis. Reactive change isn’t healthy or sustainable – if it’s taking all your time then the necessary work that’s going to create positive change and a stronger workforce won’t be happening. Spotting this is the first step, the second is pausing and assessing where there’s the opportunity to be proactive and to focus on the activity that will reap benefits for people. Find that balance.

4. Don’t get fixated on long-term success – ‘change for now’ is a term to play with. In such uncertain times, it’s a fool’s errand to embed something permanently. Far better to see the work as ‘right for now’ and deliver accordingly. Taking this approach (both attitudinally and practically) creates far less stress and turmoil when things need to adapt, reverse or stop.

5. Decisions and Deadlines, or decisions and deadlines – we make the best decisions we can with the information we have at that point in time. It’s perfectly okay to revisit and revise decisions if new information comes to light. The same can be said of deadlines. However, some Decisions are bigger, easier or more thought through and are made and set in stone, with a capital D – same with some business-critical Deadlines. Make the distinction for your people when you’re leading through change – which is it, something we may need to adjust or tweak as we go, or something we’re saying is foundational?

6. Go with the plan – with so much in flux and so many possibilities around change, there comes a point where we need to just go for it. We once visited a company that had ‘Excellence’ as a value – people hated it, as it was constantly used to stop progress and activity. Sometimes OK is good enough – as long as we know when and how we’ll review it and make adjustments, we can commit fully for the time being.

7. Celebrate and reward the things that help – milestones are great, but they are miles apart. People need quick-fixes of success at the moment, and an easy way to do this is to place as much value on the ‘how’ as the ‘what’ of your work. We may not be there yet, but we are working ‘just fine’ – that’s got to be worth acknowledging.

8. Don’t even call it change – trying to change things at this very moment can feel like tipping a cup of dye into a raging river and expecting a colour change at the point of entry. Rethink what you are doing, and get others on-board with this. Don’t call change, change – it’ll just make people cry. Call it ‘support’ or ‘response’ or ‘progression’. Make it something that feels helpful and is answering the problems of the moment.

It’s not an exhaustive list – we can go on and on, but it’s a start, and it’s aimed at helping those ‘chronic’ situations. People are tired and down and need good-will, patience and human kindness – but it’s hard to give these ‘gifts’ when we ourselves are low.  And that’s our rule-breaking ninth point – 9. Give yourself a break from change – you are no good to anyone if you are exhausted and empty. Find out more about our approach to unplugging, and see what personal changes you could make to help you through.