So exactly how LONG should you wait for Change?

The other day I was in a conversation with a long-time rebel (first-time caller) who has been tirelessly constructing a radical new work practice for an organization. For years. Except that now he's gotten kind of tired. Perhaps you might even say fed up. His ideas are not really moving beyond the prototype stage and it's been...years. "People keep telling me that 'Change Takes Time' but my question is: How much time is TOO LONG?"

As a card-carrying member of the "Change Takes Time Fraternity", I realized I had never asked myself that question. Sure, real change takes time but when does that truth become just empty words for the Status Quo to hide behind?

My friend had worked some of this out for himself.

"Many organizations realized the need to move into a different model at around the same time. A decade ago. Most of them now are well underway into making the transition. Some have completed it. But we're still futzing around."

"That's how I know our change is taking too long."

Rebels need to have an idea (maybe even a timetable?) for how long it takes to complete certain types of change in comparable organizations. They need to use this information (cleverly) to establish expectations not just for themselves but also for the organization around them. Because in most change initiatives, the Status Quo remains in fact the most important player.

I can imagine it would be quite effective to let the bureaucratic black belts know what the typical transition time is for comparable change initiatives. Status Quo leaders may not always buy the idea for change but they are quite inclined to support the need to keep to a schedule. And talking explicitly about how long you expect something to take and "how long too long is" will also prevent the passive-aggressives in your organization from availing themselves of one of their favorite techniques--using the unmonitored passage of time to wait the rebels out.

Finally, having a clearer framework in your mind to help you determine when change is taking too long will help you avoid rebel burnout. Rebel self-care is essential and yet most rebels are horrible at it. We really do suffer from the sunk costs phenomenon, particularly because our sunk costs usually represent emotional and psychological investments.

Rebels sometimes also need to think about whether they are prepared to stay in their position long enough to see a particular change through. Are you strong enough to hack away at your organization's undergrowth for let's say five years to make something happen?  Be honest when you answer that question. Because change takes time.

 

Knowing when to quit

Two weeks ago I was leading an American Marketing Association workshop about how to gain approval and adoption of new ideas. We covered the first four items on the following list through a series exercises and then I asked everyone which of #5 - 10 they most wanted to spend time on. 1.   What’s at stake?

2.   Make the status quo unappealing

3.   Use the SCARF model

4.   Uncover the hidden motives

5.   It’s an experiment

6.   What’s the real issue?

7.   Move away from drama

8.   Befriend the Bureaucratic Black Belts

9.   Stay under the radar

10.   Know when to quit

People loved #10.  I have to confess I was surprised and perhaps not prepared enough.  How do you know when it's time to let an idea go? Or  stop trying to get a project funded? Or get people interested in adopting a new way? Or even leave a job?

Here's what I suggested:

  • Rate importance: Ask your boss or client how important a particular project is to them on a scale of 1 - 10.  If it's below six, it's just not that important.  At this point you'll probably have a hard time getting it to 9 or 10.  If they say 7 or 8, ask them what it what would make it a 9 or 10.  Then listen very carefully.
  • Just ask:  "We've been talking about this idea for a while, but it doesn't seem to be moving ahead. I think it helps us (insert important organizational goal). What do you think is holding it back? What advice can you give me?"
  • Is the energy waning?  Do fewer people show up for meetings about the idea?  Is the idea put early on the agenda (probably still interested) or last (if we don't get to it, no big deal.)? Is it even on management meeting agendas?
  • Not performance objective worthy: If you set your annual performance objectives and your boss doesn't view your big idea as an important for your objectives, he or she doesn't think the idea is important.
  • How much are your colleagues willing to help? If your work friends just aren't into helping you with the idea, it may signal that they don't see the value of it. Another sign that it may be time to quit the idea.
  • Are you becoming not yourself? If you're starting to be angry, judgmental or righteous, this might be a sign that it's time to let go.

Yogi Berra allegedly once said, "If the people don't want to come, there's nothing we can do to stop them."

Sometimes the time isn't right for an idea. We rebel thinkers work ahead of most people, and it takes a while for them to catch up with our ideas. Sometimes you just need to wait a while and reintroduce the idea.

Sometimes you may need to more clearly communicate the value and relevance of the idea. It's easy after a while to get so down into the weeds of how a project or idea will work that people have forgotten why it's such a good idea in the first place. (Go to #1 on the list: show them what's at stake, what the idea makes possible and how that's so much better than what exists today.)

Don't beat yourself up or take on all that failure language or people will begin to see you as a problem person vs. the creative person who knows how to come up with great ideas.

Even if this was the greatest idea you think you've ever developed, know that there will be more great ideas.  Creativity doesn't stop.

Unless, of course,  you spend all your energy hanging on too long to an idea no one cares about.

When your horse dies, get off.