Change Thinking

Despite all the business change knowledge uncovered during the last 50 years, many seasoned change management professionals still aren’t adequately prepared to serve those trying to navigate their way through today’s turbulence. Change Thinking is an effort to have an exchange with, and be part of, a community of practitioners committed to raising the level of their game and that of the field of change execution.

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How to Get Unstuck

Categories: Getting Unstuck

“You don’t drown by falling in the water; you drown by staying there.” ~Edwin Louis Cole

In my last post, I wrote about what happens when initiatives become “stuck.” Challenges and obstacles to implementation are a regular and expected occurrence in any change initiative. They become problematic, however, when the attending change agent doesn’t have a plan he or she believes in, or even an idea, of how to solve the problem.

There is a framework practitioners can use to determine how to get unstuck, regardless of the nature of the desired outcome, or the implementation approach used (Kotter, Bridges, Anderson, Prosci, Conner, etc.), or the specific actions they call into play. This post provides a way to look at a generic intervention process and how to apply it to any change or execution methodology.

Patterns Are Important—Pay Close Attention to Them

In a previous series on patterns, I wrote about the set of fundamental dynamics for implementing change that runs beneath all initiatives and practitioner approaches. Blockages of a stuck initiative can only be addressed properly at this level. These dynamics cluster into certain patterns of behaviors and mindsets. Some of these patterns are associated with change success, while others are linked to failure. How the patterns play out in a particular change initiative can be ascertained by using one or more “lenses” to observe and interpret what is going on. We can select the correct lenses by listening carefully to and observing the symptoms of being stuck.

Before Intervening, Know the Situation

The situation is the specific setting in which practitioners intervene. Because situations can be large or small, strategic or tactical, the intervention sequence I’m about to describe can play out at many levels. In addition, I make two critical assumptions about the situations in which we change facilitators are involved. The first is that we are there in service to and in partnership with the person or group with whom we are working. We are not there to impose our will on them or to act as a “pair of hands,” merely doing as we are told. This means that as we apply the sequence, we work with our client and others involved, rather than for them. The second assumption is that the joint goal for the client and us as practitioners is full achievement of the true purpose behind the initiative. This helps us focus on the things that are most important, both for the organization and for the individuals involved.

Intervention Is a Four-Step Process—Observe, Interpret, Plan, Influence

To properly intervene, we must first observe a situation to determine whether sufficient progress is being made toward desired outcomes or whether something has become stuck. If we can observe symptoms of being stuck, we can then try out various “lenses” (interpret) until one or a combination of them bring some clarity as to what patterns (behaviors and/or mindset) might have contributed to the initiative becoming stuck. When considered as they are intended to be used, these same patterns are also key to creating a plan for mitigating the “stuckness.” Executing against that plan is how the situation is influenced.

So, to summarize, practitioners observe symptoms that can be interpreted through the appropriate lenses, which, in turn, allows them to plan how they’ll use patterns to influence and hopefully promote a positive shift within the underlying dynamics.

Symptoms > Lens > Patterns of Behaviors and Mindsets

Intervention Sequence

Step 1: Observe

To gain an understanding of the situation, the practitioner takes in a range of information through a variety of channels, with as little filtering as possible. The information gathered may include sensory and physical impressions, verbal and nonverbal material, qualitative and quantitative data, and any other forms of input that can be gathered. The key here is for the practitioner to work to keep an open mind and minimize any preconceptions about the situation.

As information is absorbed, the practitioner continually keeps in mind an image of what successful implementation looks like in the context of the situation (i.e., “At this stage of the process, what will I see when this situation is moving toward delivering the desired outcome?”). As long as the information coming in is consistent with moving in the right direction, the practitioner continues the observation process. From time to time, however, he or she will observe symptoms of being stuck in the situation (something hindering the flow toward intended results) that needs to be addressed. This recognition triggers the next step in the sequence.

  Example: A practitioner meets with a key sponsor (who we will refer to as the client for the remainder of these examples) to discuss preparations for an upcoming workshop. As they work through the activities that will take place, the practitioner absorbs the spoken words, body language, and other aspects of the situation, including what the client is not saying. At some point she picks up some physical and verbal cues that lead her to believe there is a disconnect between what the client is describing and the conditions required for the workshop to succeed. At this point, she’s not sure exactly what the issue is, but she knows there is a gap between the situation as it is and what is needed for movement toward change success.

Step 2: Interpret

Once the practitioner observes a situation that is stuck, he or she applies a range of lenses to the symptoms being observed, selecting those that might provide the best perspective on what is happening. Using this initial set of lenses to develop a deeper understanding, the practitioner asks additional questions to refine his or her interpretation of the situation. This process eventually leads to recognizing the precise lens or set of lenses needed to reveal both the behaviors and mindset patterns contributing to the problem and the ones in need of engagement to unstick the situation.   Example: The practitioner uses a variety of cues to observe that an “empowerment” lens is particularly useful in understanding why the intended outcome is in jeopardy. She recognizes that the client’s language appears to reflect a victim mentality as it relates to one of the other key sponsors. To confirm, she explores the situation further with the client, asking questions to refine her understanding. They jointly uncover that the client does not believe he has the desired level of influence with the other sponsor (his peer) and has therefore not confronted him about a critical difference in their perceptions.


Step 3: Plan

The practitioner then applies the selected lens (or combination of lenses), along with the related patterns, to develop a plan for getting unstuck. This includes determining actions to be taken, shifts in thinking or perception that may help people operate more effectively, or anything else that could assist in moving the situation toward delivering on the intended change results. In any given situation, there are many options for proceeding.   Example: Using the empowerment lens to guide her in identifying mitigating actions, the practitioner helps the client see how his reluctance to confront his colleague could block the achievement of true alignment of the leadership team that is needed as an outcome of the workshop. The practitioner identifies a potential opportunity to help the client reframe his interpretation of the other sponsor’s actions, and they work together to plan the key points in a conversation that the sponsor will have with his peer sponsor.

Step 4: Influence

As the practitioner and client apply the approach created in the previous step (the plan), they must contend with the dynamics that always accompany disruptive change—resistance, political pressures, etc. In some cases, the practitioner must act directly on the situation; others require effective communication to influences others to perceive things differently, engage in action, etc. As in the planning process, the practitioner’s actions are always guided by patterns that promote fulfillment of the intended result.   Example: The practitioner finds the client more reluctant to pursue his colleague than anticipated, and engages in a reframing discussion to help him see that what he thought of as a rejection of his value may instead have been a reflection of the other sponsor’s emotional state after an upsetting meeting. The practitioner and the client role-play a dialogue with the other sponsor, and agree to follow up the next day. The client has the meeting with his colleague and raises several key issues. They part with a much greater willingness to continue the open dialogue in the workshop.

Successful Interventions Help Clients Reach Their Goals

The intervention sequence presented here is designed to help you become more conscious of the process you use when working to unstick an initiative (i.e., influence people and situations so they can deliver the desired outcomes). It outlines a general set of steps—observe, interpret, plan, influence—used across a wide range of settings and found in virtually all approaches to change. The steps in the sequence are applied by using:

  • Lenses to help us interpret what we see and identify the issues that need to be addressed
  • Patterns to help us gain a deeper understanding of how the initiative is stuck and select the most effective mindsets and behaviors for addressing these issues

Whatever approach to implementation you are most comfortable with, it can be thought of as a road map that leads you through a multitude of situations calling for the intervention sequence. Your approach offers concepts, models, tools, and other resources to help you observe the situation clearly, suggest lenses and patterns that are useful in interpreting the situation, provides input to the planning process, and furnishes guidance on the most effective ways to influence situations to increase the likelihood of a successful intervention. By being mindful of this process, we increase our chances of helping clients accomplish their intended outcomes.

Posted on: July 07, 2010 11:54 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

Are You Stuck?

Categories: Getting Unstuck

“Most obstacles are imaginary; the rest are only temporary.”  ~Scott Sorrel

We all get stuck sometimes…it’s part of the human experience. We know what we want to achieve and have a plan for doing it, but suddenly we’re faced with a challenge that mystifies us. The situation may involve a problem or opportunity, but the fact is, we don’t know how to resolve it given the present circumstances (or aren’t willing to because of certain implications). In other words, becoming unstuck isn’t about problems/opportunities—it’s about problems/opportunities with no clear way to address them.

There are as many ways to be stuck as there are aspects to our lives. We can become stuck with our spouse or kids, our friends, our careers or boss, our physical well-being, our spiritual development, etc. Anything of significance that we set out to accomplish can, and most likely will, become stuck at one time or another.

Professional change facilitators are not immune to being stuck. From time to time, even the most accomplished practitioners, applying the most capable execution methodologies, are unable to find a viable resolution to a particular implementation problem/opportunity. When this happens, it doesn’t mean the blockage is insurmountable or that our methodologies have failed us. Being stuck is usually a signal that we need to stop and recalibrate whatever approach we’re using…continuing the path we’re on is unlikely to release the obstruction.

A change initiative becomes stuck when an important aspect of the implementation process loses direction and/or momentum toward its intended result, and there is no confidence that a viable mitigation plan is in place. That’s a mouthful, so let me break it down into its six main points:

  • Important Aspect—All implementation approaches are populated with specific steps or actions (key milestones or events, techniques, procedures, etc.). When one or more of these falters, it’s a concern, but not every problem causes an initiative to get stuck—only those that affect realization of the project’s intent.
  • Intended Result—Each of these steps or actions has a desired outcome that will foster progress.
  • Lost Direction—This occurs when an aspect’s purpose has been forgotten, misdirected, or fractionated/diffused so much that the intended result is no longer clear for people.
  • Lost Momentum—This occurs when the forward motion of an aspect slows (or stops altogether) well before achieving its contribution to the initiative’s realization.
  • Viable Mitigation Plan—It is impossible to tell if a mitigation plan is the right one until it has been fully played out. Prior to that, a plan can only be assessed on its viability…its capability for success, not its assurance for success.
  • No Confidence—Sometimes, risky mitigation plans are pursued, even in the face of pessimistic odds, because the practitioner believes that the plan can prevail. On the other hand, even low-risk mitigation plans are likely to fail if the practitioner doesn’t believe in them.

There aren’t any negative connotations to being stuck, provided we address the blockage in an effective and timely manner. Our role in becoming unstuck involves the following:

  • Recognizing when progress has stopped or is in jeopardy
  • Correctly diagnosing the contributing factors
  • Engaging the proper mitigating action so progress can once again take place

Unfortunately, initiatives that remain stuck contribute to 70% of change endeavors falling short of their stated goals. Our role is to address these kinds of obstructions when they occur. Given how pervasive and damaging being stuck can be, it is important that we share as much with each other as we can about what’s been learned and what we’re doing to deal with it.

Here are some of my perspectives on being stuck. I encourage you to join in with your observations.

Recognize when progress has stopped or slowed

A “stuck” situation has three components:

  • Context (the background terrain)
  • What are the overall initiative’s expected realization outcomes?
  • What general aspect of the implementation is stuck?
  • Stuck point (the specific place where symptoms of lost direction and/or momentum become apparent)
  • What is not moving forward as it needs to?
  • What has been done to try to unstick the situation?
  • Underlying dynamics (where lenses and patterns are first revealed) (see my previous series on lenses and patterns)
  • What is/is not occurring at the meta-level that has led to the stuck symptoms?

A project may become stuck at the initiative or the practitioner level

  • The situation may lessen the promised benefits of the overall change endeavor (initiative) or keep you from fulfilling your charter as the change facilitator (practitioner)
  • An initiative that is stuck (the project has lost direction and/or momentum) only becomes problematic when the practitioner becomes stuck (doesn’t know what to do about it)

Correctly diagnose what’s contributing to being stuck

Several factors may contribute to a loss of direction or momentum at the initiative level:

  • There never was sufficient clarity and/or senior executive alignment around the initiative’s real purpose
  • The clarity and alignment that once existed  has become thin and divided
  • There is insufficient sponsor commitment
  • Realization aspirations are pursued with an installation mindset
  • Attempting transformational change with an incremental budget and/or timeline
  • The people involved have inadequate remaining capacity to absorb the initiative’s implications
  • There is misalignment between the cultural norms and the actions needed for the initiative to succeed
  • The people most affected by the changes are not included to the extent needed in the implementation planning
  • People are reluctant to raise implementation risk early and forthrightly

Initiatives routinely become stuck, but these situations become problematic only when the practitioner doesn’t know what to resolve the issue. It is important, then, for practitioners to watch for the warning signs of being stuck:

  • Change agents try to address tough political, cultural, or personality-driven issues while at the same time attempting to keep everyone happy
  • They accept more responsibility for an initiative’s success than the initiating sponsor does
  • They try to resolve problems/opportunities by working at the level of symptoms instead of working at the level of underlying dynamics (see lenses and patterns).
  • They fail to communicate what needs to be said (which, if said, it would likely make a difference).

-        Reasons practitioners fail to communicate:

  • They won’t. (For various reasons, they withhold what needs to be said.)
  • They can’t. (For various reasons, they are unable to convey what needs to be said and, therefore, are probably not the right person for the role.)
  • What is not said by the practitioner often stems from unfulfilled expectations that were never agreed to in the first place (usually due to poor or nonexistent contracting).
  • They fail to tell the truth.
  • Change agents should strive to be truthful:
  • To themselves about themselves
  • To themselves about their clients
  • To their clients about themselves
  • To their clients about their clients
  • To be of value, practitioner truth-telling should be communicated three ways:
  • With accuracy—correct, proper, just, and meticulous
  • With directness—straightforward, unequivocal, crisp, compassionate, and unambiguous
  • With understanding—empathetic, respectful, sensitive, and compassionate

Take action to start moving forward again

An initiative will inevitably become stuck during major transitions. Therefore, the heart of the change facilitator’s reason for being is to address these inhibitors to progress.

Change agents don’t unstick initiatives themselves, they facilitate the appropriate people in doing it. They surface the information needed for people to make informed decisions about the actions necessary to become unstuck. This is done by determining what’s missing (not said) that would foster initiative success and either encourage others to communicate the message to the appropriate person(s) or communicate it themselves.

Seldom is a situation too stuck to be resolved, although practitioners may decide that “it’s just not worth it” (which is fine as long as this is openly communicated to the appropriate person[s]).

Remember, if you’re stuck, you’re in good company. Every seasoned practitioner has, at times, been unable to deal with a particular implementation problem. Address the blockage quickly and effectively by recognizing the problem, diagnosing the contributing factors, and engaging the proper mitigating action.

I recently conducted a one-hour webinar to help two “stuck” practitioners diagnose an implementation problem and decide on a mitigation plan. You can access the recording by clicking on The Front Lines of Change icon in the sidebar.

Posted on: July 01, 2010 08:28 AM | Permalink | Comments (0)

"Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you walk into an open sewer and die."

- Mel Brooks