Change is often described as a continuous process. My experience suggests otherwise. I think of change as impulse — force applied over a very brief interval of time. Effective change is instantaneous — when it has sufficient force of skill, will and effort behind it.
What is commonly meant by change, is, in fact, three discrete steps — preparing for change, making the change, and sustaining it. Think of it as pushing a car to help it start1. You take a few deep breaths, anchor your feet, and place your hands on a part of the car that won’t break off. This is preparation. Then the actual push — maximum effort! — to get the stationary object in motion. Finally, once the car starts rolling, you keep pushing, to sustain the change. The effort now is lower, but it has to be consistent.
If these three steps are covered in the catch-all phrase, “change management”, we risk getting something wrong. Each step is unique, and needs to be addressed differently.
Preparing for change
Preparation for change starts with realizing the need for change. In most organizations, this is precipitated by an external crisis. In some, forward-looking leaders don’t wait — instead, they create an internal crisis. And a few visionary leaders, like Taiichi Ohno at Toyota, successfully embed change in the organization’s DNA, by using it as the means to pursue perfection.
Once the need is realized, organizations have to agree on what to change. This is alignment. An aligned organization can push in the same direction. Conversely, a misaligned organization expends tremendous effort without commensurate gain — leading to fatigue and disillusionment.
Making the change
The essence of change is aligned action. Aligned — because my toes cannot point away from my hands when I push the car. Action — because this is not the time to speculate about why the car was not somewhere uphill. I must simply push — hard enough to overcome static friction.
Once the car is in motion, I stop pushing for a second or two, to see how well inertia has taken hold. Sustaining change takes less effort. But, it still requires constant attention. If I start daydreaming, the car will stop — and all the effort put in to make it move will have gone to waste. Until the car moves under its own power, I have to keep pushing.
Similarly, an organization’s attention has to remain on what was changed, even if the total effort is reduced. This has to continue until the change becomes a habit. And to make it a habit, our work standards have to be updated to incorporate the change.
I have found that the environment is of particular importance for sustaining change. Consider the following example:
You are a hospital administrator who wants to improve the quality of outpatient services. You define quality as correct diagnosis, convenient access to services, and cost-effective treatment.
Since you are an administrator, you first focus on improving access — it appears well within your span of control. You and your team of receptionists, pharmacists, and lab technicians, decides that reducing wait time is the first target. Now, you are aligned.
You conduct a workshop, come up with executable ideas, and implement them. For instance, you improve communication between the doctor’s office and the pharmacy in order to reduce wait times at the pharmacy counter. The very next day, patients comment on the improvement. The team celebrates.
However, the rest of the staff, whether due to overloading or poorly-defined processes, are frequently late in completing their patient care activities. How long do you think the change will last after the initial enthusiasm wanes?
Hence, to sustain change, the environment has to enable it. This is the job of leaders in the organization — to create an environment that promotes changes to a more elevated state.
In summary, the better we understand the three steps of change — preparation (need, alignment), change (synchronous action), sustenance (discipline, enabling environment) — the more equipped we become to change to a more elevated state2.
With inputs from Mohan
I first thought of using the well-trodden analogy of pushing a boulder uphill. Then I realized that I am no Sisyphus; I have not even seen a boulder being pushed uphill. What I have pushed is the family car — the venerable Maruti 800. I think it was my father’s way of checking my cardiovascular capacity. ↩
Each cycle change improves our capability to plan and execute the next one. In the world of car-pushing, my father and I got the process down to a science. We knew the highest point of the lane in front of our flat — the starting point. I knew the exact spot where he would stop pushing and jump in, and I would have to compensate. And I learned to use my legs and back, not my arms. That last lesson still stands me in good stead. ↩