One of the top questions many marathoners are asked after revealing they are a marathoner is, “What was your time?”. But, why do people so often go to the result of an accomplishment instead of exploring the journey? The journey is the exciting part of the story in books and movies, and the outcome is often rewarding and fulfilling not because we now know it but because we know what it took to get there. As Robin S. Sharma wrote in his book “The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari: A Fable About Fulfilling Your Dreams and Reaching Your Destiny,” “Change is hard at first, messy in the middle, and gorgeous at the end.”
There’s some research to suggest that negative and positive focuses can impact change differently. In an article for Harvard Business Review, organizational psychologist and author Nick Tasler shares research on this topic and advocates for the elimination of the excuse of “organizational change is hard” in lieu of that research. He describes 2011 research led by University of Brighton’s Mark Hughes that found that the often-used statistic that 70% of change efforts fail appears to be a mythical number with no statistical support. Tasler also references studies by University of Chicago researchers that found high success rates when the people involved in change were primed with a reminder that “most people do in fact successfully improve with a little bit of effort.”
Many learning and development (L&D) teams approach change by offering education to leaders using approaches like Kotter’s eight-step change model. Kotter’s model is great for a practicing change consultant, but for leaders trying to reach the metrics their organization asks of them, while engaging and developing their team, and leading through change, it can be an intimidating process. L&D professionals can help not by giving a process framework but by providing tools that will help leaders naturally, not forcefully, go through the process with their team.
1. “Hard at First”: Making a Plan
Often, teams spend hours discussing why a change won’t work or why it will be hard, often due to a fear of the unknown. One powerful way L&D can help is by, first, capturing team members’ fears and concerns. It is natural to talk about concerns, but L&D professionals can help leaders use an exercise that will help their team go from venting to planning:
The exercise starts with capturing team members’ concerns using a whiteboard or piece of paper and marker. Next, the leader should ask team members to discuss how much control they have over each concern, going down the list one by one. Does the team have 10% control? Does it have 25% or maybe even 75%?
Then, team members should identify what is and isn’t in their control — which is where the exercise can become exciting. As they identify what they need to do to accomplish the pieces that are in their control, they are embracing the challenges and creating a plan, piece by piece, that makes them less intimidating.
2. The “Messy Middle” and the Bonds of Trust
Once a team has a plan, it’s time to start on the plan. Soon, the team is likely to have its first failure. This failure is often a pivotal moment. Team members start to become unsure again and forget how resilient they are.
Fortunately, L&D can capture that resilience in real time. Often, organizations provide resilience training before change starts, not in the “messy middle,” when it is the most relatable. The place for L&D to start nurturing resilience and connection is leaders, and a great change tool to introduce to leaders during this time is an intake form with questions to engage team members.
Leaders sometimes struggle to engage and capture progress during change at an individual level. L&D can help leaders by coaching them on the impact of rounding, which involves having purposeful and meaningful conversations, and intake forms helps connect purpose to passion. The purpose of rounding is to allow for daily or periodic check-ins throughout the week for leaders to meet their employees where they are. Rounding also helps leaders connect with employees through curious questions that prompt employees to explore their thoughts and search for solutions. Encourage leaders to keep it real through listening, tailoring and partnering during this process.
3. Celebrating at the “Gorgeous End”
The messy middle takes some time. Too often, we reach the end of a change and miss a vital opportunity to celebrate the outcome. Many leaders struggle to take time to celebrate the “gorgeous end” because they’ve already started on the next project.
The L&D team are not the company party planners, and the industry has worked to overcome this label for years. However, L&D professionals do understand the importance of helping leaders understand the importance of celebrating during the messy middle and at the gorgeous end. According to research by employee recognition and reward solutions firm O.C. Tanner, 79% of employees who quit their jobs said that a lack of appreciation was a major reason for leaving. People want some type of reward and recognition — and they deserve it, especially in times of change. Help leaders build a gorgeous end that people can go back to later through hand-written thank you cards or group selfies at a team celebration.
Learning and development has the opportunity to be the change agents of change management. Leaders often are not change experts but, rather, caring humans trying their best to lead and grow their team through the change process. L&D has the ultimate opportunity to partner, be present through the process, and collaborate to make the experience unique and meaningful.