Want to Make Big Changes? Start Small.

I work with a lot of people who are trying to change something in their teams, small firms, or large organizations.

One of the things I’ve noticed over the years of doing this work is that there can be a tendency to want to make a big, dramatic, “transformational” change in one fell swoop. To take on a new strategy, for example, or to change the culture of a team.

My observation is that this approach rarely works, regardless of whether you’re a small enterprise (a few lawyers who run a Trusts and Estates firm, say) or a huge, well-resourced company.

Here’s what I’ve seen:

1. “People don’t resist change; they resist being changed.”

This idea comes from Peter Senge, one of the preeminent writers on learning and change. Dramatic change is, by its nature, imposed on a team or company. Because the team is not invited to discover their own path, they resist change.

2. Change can be fast or it can be sticky.

Fast change creates a lot of activity very quickly–but that fades. I’ve seen companies spend tens of millions of dollars to convene thousands of managers in a huge conference center to create a shift in culture. Such efforts rarely have a lasting effect. When people go back to their desks, they revert back to their normal behavior. The system supports staying comfortable instead of shifting.

The most successful change efforts focus on changing small behaviors in small groups. They recognize that adoption isn’t an “all at once” phenomenon and that the success of one team will help others work toward success, too.

3. Appreciate what you do well and don’t stop what you’re doing.

Whatever you’ve done to get to this point has worked, at least somewhat (otherwise, you’d be starting something new, not changing something existing)!

When we want to change, we often lose sight of what does work. If we want to be more entrepreneurial, for instance, we might start by seeing how our current approach to detailed planning has helped us over the years.

Appreciating what happens already also applies to work itself. I was recently working with a business owner who wanted to create a new product to complement his existing services business, so that he could be less involved in the day-to-day of the work. His plan (fantasy?) was to take a month off from his normal responsibilities and create his product.

Needless to say, that plan didn’t work-he received a lucrative offer from a consulting client and was drawn back into delivering services. To make the kind of change that he seeks, he’ll have to take a more incremental approach, working a few hours at a time on his product while he keeps his business up and running.

What about you? What are the ways you’ve seen change efforts work (and not)?

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Host of The Breakdown™ podcast. Co-author of MELTDOWN, a book on why our systems fail & what we can do about it. A lot, it turns out. http://bit.ly/1-meltdown

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