Embarking on an organizational culture change effort is a lot like running a marathon. Both can seem daunting, but both are doable. They do not demand extraordinary skill but they do require persistence and determined effort over time. To achieve success, you must have the courage to start, the strength to endure, and the resolve to see it through.
We have all heard the saying “it’s a marathon, not a sprint,” but for the analogy to be meaningful, we need to dig deeper to uncover the lessons and observations behind the catch phrase. There are three key components of a successful marathon: preparation, pace, and perseverance. Although the context and application are different, these same factors drive successful organizational change efforts.
It takes commitment and planning to train for a marathon. Training begins roughly four months before the day of the event. It takes time and effort to build the foundation of strength and stamina that the event requires. Similar preparation is required for effective organizational change. Attempting a marathon without proper preparation and training would be considered foolhardy and risky. Launching a significant organizational change effort without planning and preparation is equally unwise.
With organizational change, the key components of preparation include the development of a comprehensive communication plan that identifies the goals, roles, and expectations surrounding the change. Change needs to be socialized so that people understand what is changing, why, and when. Equally important, they need to understand what organizational anchors and expectations will remain unchanged. People do best with change when they have a roadmap that links today’s and tomorrow’s actions to long-term goals and when they believe that the change will create a better future.
In preparation for the change journey, define where you want to go, why you are going, when you plan to arrive, and how you will know you are there. In addition to painting a clear and compelling vision of your desired destination, identify the key steps and actions that need to be implemented now to set the stage for what will happen later.
The most common mistake in a marathon is starting too fast and setting a pace that cannot be maintained. As the race starts, excitement and enthusiasm are high so it is tempting to start the race running harder and faster than you should. Unfortunately, letting adrenalin and enthusiasm dictate your starting pace is a flawed strategy inevitably leads to a poor finish. While the beginning may seem easy, the effort gets harder as time goes on and fatigue sets in. Seasoned runners realize that a marathon is a long race and setting a sustainable pace is crucial to success. Rather than expending all your energy in the beginning, a better strategy is set a pace that allows you to sustain the effort and finish strong. Starting strong is easy. Finishing strong is the goal.
In pacing organizational change, it is important to resist the temptation to try to do too much, too soon. Maintaining the momentum of change is hard and it is almost impossible if you try to do everything at once. Without proper pacing, the change effort will burn brightly in the beginning but will soon diminish as the initial excitement and enthusiasm fade.
Pacing is simply taking the time to stage efforts by identifying and focusing on the few things that need to be done now and determining the sequencing of actions and activities that should be deferred until later in the process.
The identification and articulation of interim goals or steps along the way help make the change process more manageable and easier for people to understand and embrace. Creating visible milestones throughout the change effort allows the organization to focus on clear near-term goals. Celebrating the successes along the way provides validation that the overarching goal is attainable. Determining how you will get to each milestone and beyond keeps people engaged and focused on both the near-term goal and the long-term objectives.
A marathon measures 26.2 miles which makes it a very long run. It’s a passage that generates exhilaration and excitement but it also includes long periods of boredom, doubt, and pain. At some point in the race, almost every marathon runner feels the overwhelming urge to simply give up and quit. It takes perseverance and commitment to push through and complete the effort.
Likewise, organizational change is hard. Approaching change efforts with proper preparation and a realistic pace makes it easier. Providing context and perspective helps people persevere. Take the time to paint a compelling vision of the future you are striving to achieve and engaging the whole of the organization in understanding that this desired state is only possible with specific individual and collective actions. Each of these actions involves change for the person involved so individuals need to be engaged on a personal basis. Remind people:
- Where we were (context)
- Why we decided to make a shift (the case for change)
- What’s next (identify near term goals)
- What we have accomplished to date during the change journey (highlight success and momentum)
- How we will know we have achieved success (define the desired state)
- What you need them to do (the specific call to action)
This type of sustained communication, message reinforcement, and continual feedback process is difficult to maintain but critical for success. Rarely does real change occur in big bursts. More often, change sticks when small efforts are attempted, acknowledged, reinforced, and repeated.
Completing a marathon is clearly a challenge, but those that invest adequate time preparing, set a reasonable and sustainable pace, and are committed to persevere will overcome the daunting challenge to achieve a significant personal accomplishment. Likewise, change agents who invest sufficient time setting context and preparing the organization for change, set a reasonable and sustainable pace and have the fortitude to persevere and lead through the highs and lows, can drive real change and incredible results.