Despite our best intentions at the start of the January, it’s widely known that over 75% of resolutions fail by the second week of February.
Most articles on the topic endlessly rehash “how to really make it stick this time” or “why we should stop making resolutions in the first place.” But we’re overlooking a valuable lesson these failures teach us about how little we understand about humans and change in general.
2020 was a year of major change for many organizations. A recent article from Harvard Business Review "Adapt Your Business to the New Reality" reflects that crises, much like those encountered in 2020, produce a plethora of temporary change, but also some lasting ones. These changes, much like our New Year's resolutions, need to be embraced in 2021.
Our failure to keep New Year’s resolutions highlights just how little we know about human behavior when we try to change performance. Despite all the popular books on performance change (Duhigg’s The Power of Habit, Pink’s Drive, etc.) and countless apps to manage our to-do lists, set reminders, and track progress (Everday, Habitify, Y-Productive, Mindful Goals, etc.), we’re still really bad, even on an individual level, at getting change to stick.
If we can’t manage change in our own lives, it’s no wonder that organizational initiatives, projects, and change strategies struggle with even the fundamentals, like securing effective sponsorship, supporting impacted employees, clearly articulating the finish line, etc.
Six Ways to Make Resolutions and Support Change in 2021
Here are six things we can STOP doing and START doing to truly change performance, whether for personal New Year’s resolutions or organizational change.
Stop comparing the old habit or way of working to the new
Start talking together about the options, the unknowns and the needs
The old habit wasn’t bad. The new way of working isn’t necessarily better. It’s not about judging and comparing; it’s about meeting the needs of the conditions as they evolve. Judging and comparing makes it harder to let go and adjust to change. In fact, adjusting to new constraints and priorities is what we’ve always done but the change in conditions have never been quite as stark. Similarly, the need for people to adjust to change together has never been as critical. This framing is important to help people think and talk about supporting change in an ongoing manner. Talking together is a way to allow people to engage with the change, evaluate concerns beyond their private thoughts and create a sense of togetherness. It’s a way to foster creativity and collaboration and it provides the opportunity people need to gradually change mentally, emotionally and physically instead of trying to change overnight.
This type of engagement with the change tends to occur more naturally with personal habits when we’re exploring different exercise regimes or health priorities but one that we tend to overlook with organizational change. Similarly, we don’t often sugarcoat the need or options for change with personal habits. Instead we’re able to evaluate information and make choices based on what we think will be best for our goals. Leaders managing change sometimes try too hard to “excite” their people into change as opposed to bringing them along in the process of change. By allowing people to engage with the change, they’ll be better equipped to adjust, evaluate alternative strategies, and make recommendations most suited for the desired goals.
Stop using “milestones” as the sole metric
Start using behavioral metrics that indicate active change
People who count calories, track exercise, and monitor weight have figured this out. Milestones help gauge an initiative’s overall progress, but they don’t measure progress in terms of engagement and adoption and therefore don't measure real change. So, measure what you really need to manage: measure behaviors (eating, exercising) that directly impact your desired result (weight loss, muscle gain). It’s the behaviors that tell you whether you’re succeeding or where remaining barriers may exist.
Secondly, behaviors are true performance-based, real-time indicators. They can be tracked more often (weekly/monthly) than end-results. This enables you to change course if needed, should exercise or calorie counting fail to impact your desired results. In this way, you’re validating the relationship between your effort and desired outcome, and you can adjust as needed. The same is true during organizational change. If we are making the change we wanted, is it impacting the results anticipated? Why or why not?
Stop using early project milestones as “short-term wins” (they’re not)
Start having performers define early performance-based accomplishments as short-term wins
Most New Year’s resolutions and change events focus on milestones like “lose 30 pounds” or “50% of folks adopt the new software,” which is a big mistake. They fail to identify the short-term behavioral wins, which generate momentum. The harder the change, the greater the need to focus on behavior. Milestone metrics can feel contrived or like another flavor-of-the-month initiative, especially if people’s buy-in is weak.
Further, because milestones are not rooted in performance-based metrics, they also fail in terms of importance to the performers affected by the change. What would the performer consider a genuine early accomplishment? For some, the behavior of working out 2x/week is a real accomplishment; for others, maybe 4x. By allowing the performers to define short-term wins, the successes become more meaningful, and thus, more important to the performers. This is how you generate momentum and ownership—when change is meaningful to those affected the most by it. Especially during these days, enable your peers or teams to choose their own success indicators.
Stop focusing only on “how the change is going”
Start focusing on how people are affected by the change
Most people who try to lose weight confront this problem first-hand, when they suddenly experience the time required to work out more often, the loss of time to do other things, the commute to the gym—all challenges they anticipated, but underestimated.
The same underestimating happens with organizational change efforts: often missing is a real-time, quality check-in on how those affected by the change are reacting to it. Some leaders know the importance of this on a superficial level, but when push comes to shove, they fail to check in adequately or frequently enough. Asking how it’s going does not lend itself to the dialogue needed to understand the performer’s experience. (“How are you coping with everything right now? What would make it better? What's happening on the ground that others can't see?”) Without fully grasping the impact of the change, leaders are unequipped to remove performance barriers, one of their most valuable roles in facilitating change.
Stop overlooking the fundamental support leaders need to drive change
Start aligning employee support with leader support to drive both
Disciplined management of your own consequences is hard (again, look at New Year’s resolutions). Now, imagine everything leaders are suddenly expected to do during change on their own accord and in addition to running the business. How much time is freed on their calendars to check-in with remote workers, walk the halls or shop floor and check in with people? How much feedback do they receive on listening effectiveness or removing performance barriers? It’s distressing— and yet almost laughable—how much expectations for leadership change without corresponding changes to their schedules, workload, or performance management systems! It’s no wonder that their effectiveness doesn’t always match the significance of their role in change.
Stop losing sight of the purpose in exchange for the goal
Start using goals as a way to track fulfilling your purpose
With New Year resolutions related to weight loss, the number of pounds someone may want to lose isn’t often forgotten. However, the purpose behind the desire to lose weight isn’t always as clearly articulated, let alone documented and reviewed. Doing so can help maintain motivation for reaching the more measurable goal as well as evaluating whether the purpose behind the effort was accomplished.
For instance, feeling more confident is much more inspiring than losing 20 pounds – but both are important to keep sight of. Plus, losing 20 pounds may not necessarily guarantee greater feelings of confidence. This would be an important realization for determining a more effective strategy for building confidence. But without the opportunity to compare the goal against the purpose, this lesson would remain undiscovered.
The same is true for organizational change, interestingly enough. How will you know if the project or change is actually shifting toward what it was you wanted to achieve in the first place? Even if a handful of people are able to cite cost savings they’re hoping to achieve, the why may be another story. Keeping both the end goal as well as the purpose for the change in full view not only serves as a practical tool for evaluating the effectiveness of the plan, but it also serves as an objective way to keep yourself honest in a sense—a simple form of accountability: We hit our goal, but did we fulfill our purpose?
Where do you stand against these common pitfalls? Take the quick self-check to identify where you may be able to make gains when planning or managing organizational change in 2021. Click the button below to download it now.