Momentum: 3 Principles to Keeping Change Alive

Got your disco on? Research shows that if faced with the need to perform CPR on a person in cardiac distress, humming the Bee Gees song, “Stayin’ Alive” will help the individual administering care maintain a rhythm close to the 100 beats per minute recommended for CPR by the American Heart Association.

While there are several critical elements to administering CPR correctly, the key findings here relate to speed and rhythm. Care administered too fast, too slow or too inconsistently greatly reduces the efficacy of treatment and greatly increases the risk of heart damage and even death. Efficacy is enhanced with consistent momentum.

It’s not that different for us as leaders of change. Now, at the risk of sounding maudlin, I’ll draw no further connections between the life-giving efforts you give your fellow citizens and those you give your organization. (And with that, I ask that you forgive my use of the words “live” and “die”). The connection I want to draw is one distinctly about momentum — that when the momentum of our change efforts die, the prospects of those efforts die with them.

Think back to the last unfulfilled change program your leadership team introduced. Chances are good that it evolved something like this:

  1. Leadership holds a big launch announcement and with it, introduces new internal communication channels dedicated to “keeping you up-to-date” on the program.
  2. The program team produces a few months of regular project updates featuring testimonials from various business heads about the benefits the change will bring their business units.
  3. A month or two or three goes by without updates.
  4. You begin to hear rumors that the program is in trouble.
  5. Leadership holds a big program update to “bring you up to speed on the latest great developments.” You learn that the rollout date has been pushed back.
  6. A month or two or three or four of silence follows.
  7. Leadership holds a big launch announcement about the next big change program. This program will address the business dilemmas the last big change program was supposed to solve.
  8. Your teammates grumble about another “big waste of money” and express a lack of confidence in this – and perhaps any – future initiatives.

Sounds cynical, yes, but if you’ve worked in an organization where this scenario has not played out, stay there for the rest of your career because you’ve reached the promised land.

We know in our guts why communication closes down over time: We don’t know what to say when the future looks uncertain. It’s the number one question clients ask me, “What do I say when I don’t have an answer?”

When the road to change gets tough — and we know it will — follow these three principles to help you maintain consistent leadership momentum:

  1. Don’t hole up. Yes, your time is likely being consumed by program meetings. And yes, the future of the program may be uncertain. But despite what you might think, word of program distress is leaking under your door and the interpretation of it is likely worse than its reality. Stay as committed to your communication efforts as you were at launch. Holing up kills your consistency. Keep a steady pace to your communications.
  2. Be a proactive voice, not a Pollyanna. When forced to communicate about an uncertain future, the temptation is strong to appear too optimistic, too reassuring. We think that’s what our employees want from us. But to do so puts leaders at risk of a breach of trust with employees if things do fall apart. Instead, acknowledge challenges (to the extent you can ethically do so) and discuss plans for mitigating them. Employees understand that plans change; they just want to be assured that they are working for leaders who are capable of meeting the challenges ahead.
  3. Maintain connection. Leadership is lonely. And for many reasons it will remain so. But the most successful change programs (and the most successful leaders, for that matter) are the ones that maintain 2-way — upward and downward — communication channels consistently. You need to hear what your people have to say and they need access to you. Access builds connection and connection builds faith.

Step out of your office right now and take a walk. Ask the first person you see their latest thoughts on the change programs you’re leading right now. Keep on moving down the hall until you’ve filled your head. 100 beats per minute should be a good pace. Then let us know what you learned.

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