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  • Kristine Metter, MS, CAE

Which is harder – changing or sustaining the change?

My basic understanding of physics includes the principle that an object will stay still or keep moving at the same speed until acted upon by an external force. Well, the first half of 2020 brought multiple external forces that have led to significant changes in the way we live and work. The list is so long: human interactions, personal perspectives and introspection, business operations, professional strategies, and more. The changes we made range from simple modifications to major transformations. We experimented and tested. We documented what did and did not work, and we kept the cycle going. Quite frankly, it is a bit exhausting. All this change is hard.

“…studies show that in most organizations, two out of three transformation initiatives fail.” -HBR, The Hard Side of Change Management

But what about the long haul? It is one thing to bundle up all this energy to move forward into uncharted territory. It is another thing to sustain that change over time. There are many well-documented business approaches to maintaining change. The global consulting firm McKinsey & Company encourages us to consider sustainability from the inception of the change activity. Further, they suggest that sustainability requires changing both your mindset and your behavior.

Drilling down further, we know there are various factors linked to successfully implementing and sustaining change. Fight ambiguity by communicating your future vision early and often. Establish key metrics that can be regularly measured and reported. Involve key people from throughout the organization. These may seem like obvious tactics, but too many times we get wrapped up in the work of creating something new and don’t pay sufficient attention to the framework that supports the initiative and assures adoption across the organization. This transparency helps bring along people who may not be “all in” with the change happening to and around them.

The health care system has pursued quality improvement for decades and has well-documented successes in sustainability that can be applied to any sector. According to Kedar Mate in the Institute for Healthcare Improvement’s blog, “too often, hard-won improvements are lost as attention shifts to other priorities and staff revert to the ‘old way’ of doing things.” Mate outlines five tactics that proved effective with front line clinical staff:

  • Create job descriptions with clear roles and accountabilities.

  • Hold teams accountable for the new standard of work.

  • Display a visual system that helps everyone understand how they are doing with the change initiative.

  • Communicate daily so everyone is aware of the progress that has been made.

  • Establish a process for addressing problems as they arise.

The other basic physics principle at play here is inertia, where an object resists change. Many people around us are busy and scared, and they may wish things could go back to the way they were. They need help adapting to new visions, strategies, and operations. I hope this short refresher on change and sustainability serves as a reminder of the many leadership tools we have available as we move into the second half of 2020. Good luck with the hard work of sustaining your change!


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