New Year’s Resolutions Teach a Powerful Lesson About Organizational Change

By Amy Durgin, Ph.D.

New Year’s resolutions: the age-old annual practice most commonly associated with failed attempts to change personal habits. 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 organizational change.

Organizational change lessons we can learn from resolutionsOur 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 (Productive, Habitica, Streaks, 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.

Five Ways to Make Resolutions and Change Stick

So, here are five things we can STOP doing and START doing to truly change performance, whether for New Year’s resolutions or organizational change.


11920.1-StopButton Stop using “milestones” as the sole metric


11920.1-StartButton Start using behavioral metrics that indicate active change toward reaching the goal


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 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.

Secondly, behaviors are true performance-based, real-time indicators. They can be tracked more often (weekly/monthly) than end results. This enables you to redirect 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 as we anticipated? Why or why not?


11920.1-StopButton Stop using early project milestones as “short-term wins” (they’re not)


11920.1-StartButton 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 they call 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.


11920.1-StopButtonStop focusing only on “how the change is going”


11920.1-StartButtonStart 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. (“What happens when you start the new process? Does it make things easier or harder? How are customers responding? What are they saying?”) Without fully grasping the impact of the change, leaders are unequipped to remove performance barriers, one of their greatest roles in facilitating change.


11920.1-StopButtonStop overlooking the fundamental support leaders need to drive change


11920.1-StartButtonStart 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 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.


11920.1-StopButtonStop losing sight of the purpose in exchange for the goal


11920.1-StartButtonStart 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. Click the button below to download it now.

Change Management Self-Check

Topics: Change Management

Amy Durgin, Ph.D.

Written by Amy Durgin, Ph.D.