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Creating lasting change – it’s all about a Sense of Urgency and Getting Started!

John Nelligan


As a firm advocate of change, in both personal and professional lives, I am also one of the many around that simply does not like change. I suffer, you see, from a common tendency of humans to resist or not like change.  

On the other hand, when I can see a clear need for change and an achievable end result, preferably with a plan as to how get there, I am like others happy to embark on a new and rewarding journey. And also to help others to find that destination too.

Changing anything, whether big or small, can be rewarding and exhilarating. 

So what then is it that stops many of us from starting to create change, meaningful change, either in ourselves or things around us, incuding our businesses?

Well the answers are perhaps endless. But if we step back, and take some lessons from some of the eminent business models out there, we can draw a few insightful parallels and gain a few useful pointers.  

In fact, in terms of the necessary stages and steps in the process, there is not much difference between managing a business change project or implementing a personal plan to ‘create a better life-work balance’ for yourself.

It therefore stands to reason that the hurdles to success, as well as the factors leading to successful and sustainable change, at a high-level, are fairly similar whether in personal life or business.

The one big difference is that there is, or should be, more at stake when the change you are attempting to create has a direct and personal impact on you! For some reason many people find it easier to pull off changes in the business place where someone else is taking the risk. Not surprisingly!  

As I mentioned before, I often struggle to get started. Many of us do, but often when we get motivated to start usually there is no stopping us. We just need that ‘trigger’ to start and a ‘good formula’ to follow and we can usually get through the first stages of ‘uncertainty’ and start to see the positive results.

So, for those of us who like models and order, what is a good model from which to draw some focus and inspiration during the change process?

There are many models from which to choose, but my favourite model for understanding the ‘human psychology’ of ‘successful’ change is Kotters 8-Step Model in which he outlines the steps that you should take in order to ensure success in change: 

1. Establish a sense of urgency: most find it difficult to motivate for change unless absolutely necessary, but will easily follow through when we see the need and have determined that we really want to do something. 

2. Form a powerful guiding coalition: see these as effectively the ‘support networks’, those including ourselves who help to motivate to get the change programme going and remain on track. 

3. Create a vision: the basis of an effective strategic plan that will get you from A to B, where you want or need to be. Without an idea of where we are going, and what it will look like when we get there, how will we know when we have arrived. So it needs to be measurable!

4. Communicate the vision: as with all plans, it is no good keeping it to yourself. You need to tell others – those colleagues, even friends and family, involved or affected by the intended change – remind them of your goals and empower them to share your vision.

5. Empower others to act on the vision: however much you want change to happen, if you don’t empower those others that are impacted or you need to be involved – colleagues, family, friends – it will not happen.

6. Plan for and create short-term wins: big steps in terms of change in any plan take a lot of effort to achieve and a long time to see the results, before you know you are basically on track. Smaller, incremental steps help provide earlier positive feedback and engender the feelings of success.   

7. Consolidate improvements and produce still more change: the only thing that is certain in life is that things always change. The danger for most is not seeing that change and improvement is a continuous cycle. And if we don’t keep up the impetus, it’ easy to lapse back to old habits.  

8. Institutionalise new approaches: we’re not institutions, but our ‘reptilian’ brains behave very much like them. Similar to how ‘muscle memory’ teaches us to drive, and multi-task, we must work hard to train ourselves for any changes so that the new behaviours become instinctive. Until then we are vulnerable to forget them.    

This is my own interpretation of how Kotters principles for managing successful change can be useful when viewing change. In reality the principles applicable to successful life changing differ only in context to those needed for organisational change, mergers and acquisitions or any business process change to all happen.       

Creating meaningful change … it’s all about a ‘sense of urgency’ and getting started!

A couple of obvious points spring to mind from these ‘principles’.

Firstly, the need to ‘form powerful guiding coalitions’ should be obvious to us all particularly anyone who has tried meaningful life change. Without a solid ’support network’ behind us, when left to our devices, even the strongest of us will ‘wobble’ from time to time. The message is that most cannot do it alone. So get help and support, enlist the help of supportive, like-minded people. Avoid dissenters!

Change plans also fail or ‘run out of steam’ because previously enthusiastic (life) changers lose sight of ‘what they have achieved’ so far, as well as visibility of ‘where they are going’. Smaller steps, breaking down the objectives into more easily achievable and visible milestones, works wonders for keeping hope and motivation alive. It also ensures that our plans and goals remain flexible to the realities of other changes going on around us. Recognising, and whole-heartedly, celebrating each and every small step is also fundamentally imperative for long-term success. Be reminded of Neil Armstrong’s: “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind”. After all, “Rome wasn’t built in a day”!    

Training the mind to remember newly found change is also important to retaining these behaviours. If we do not use them we will lose them. And the more often that we practice something, the more second nature it becomes.  

But the far reaching message that I wanted to make however is that without ‘a sense of urgency’ change will not happen, either in business or personal change.

Sadly, rather than being proactive and ‘establishing a sense of urgency’, many of us, myself included, wait until we hit a crisis before seeking change. Desperation is however not the same as urgency. Last year I struggled to quit smoking, when told I should do so by my doctor. Months later however I easily quit, when I decided for myself that it was time to improve my health.

Why, then, do I single this principle out for special importance? Well, simply put, anecdotal and personal experience suggests that change programmes more likely than not fail to get off the ground at the first hurdle. Establishing this urgency, or an (urgent) need to change, is probably the single biggest factor in determining whether it will be successful or otherwise. Simple message: don’t attempt change unless 100% convinced of the need, since half-hearted attempts usually fail. Without any sense of urgency, most change will struggle to even get started!

I could continue with this unscholarly analysis Ad Infinitum, but I hope that the lessons to be learned from Kotter and from Change Management practitioner thinking have been useful and maybe even thought provoking. And something worth incorporating into your overall strategic planning.

Comments welcome.