Barriers to Change: Change Quicksand

What to do when you’ve already committed time, money, or power to make change—and it feels like things are only getting worse.

It’s that old, familiar, sinking feeling: despite all the work, and time, and money, you’ve put into a change, nothing is happening. Teams are still working the same way they always have, milestones are getting pushed later and later, and you and your leadership team are getting increasingly frustrated. Some days it feels like the harder you struggle, the worse it gets: you’re in Change Quicksand. 

The defining feature of Change Quicksand isn’t that change feels hard—change can feel difficult, even when it’s going well—it’s that you start to suspect that the change you’re pursuing is no longer worthwhile. It feels like the effort or resources you’re pouring into the change feels disproportionate to the impact you’re having, or worse, the change is having a negative impact.

If you’ve already committed a substantial amount of time, money, or political power to an initiative, failure may not seem like a viable option. This “sunk cost fallacy” is often a trap that organizations find themselves in: rather than accept a loss and move on, they continue to throw more and more resources at a problem in an attempt to succeed. 

At one storied organization we worked with, for instance, folks universally lamented their meetings—and for good reason. These were three-hour long, 50-person meetings held three times a week. Naturally, we confronted the issue head on: we tried limiting the number of attendees. We assigned a facilitator to keep meetings moving quickly and stay on agenda. We cut agendas down to focus on one or two topics. We tried different structures, better note-taking, no meeting days, and on and on.

All to no avail. The new policy would be adopted for a week or two, of course… but slowly and surely, the old norms would return. In fact, each additional intervention we tried led to increasing resistance. That’s because, as we learned through further observation and working with the team, these meetings were fundamental to the organization’s culture. It was where all the executive decisions were made, and most importantly, where team members got the only real face-time with their leaders which felt crucial to their development and career trajectory.

The defining feature of Change Quicksand isn’t that change feels hard—change can feel difficult, even when it’s going well—it’s that you start to suspect that the change you’re pursuing is no longer worthwhile.

So we went back to the drawing board. What teams desperately needed was more time—so if we couldn’t do it by reducing meetings, were there other changes we could make? Through a report audit, we discovered that each month, teams would spend hundreds of hours putting together reports that were never read—or that out of a 50-slide deck, perhaps only one or two charts were necessary. By getting rid of these reports, teams not only achieved better work-life balance, they also eliminated the gnawing feeling that all their work was going to waste.

It’s hard to walk away, to give up on a change, because we love heroic tales of perseverance: innovators who keep pushing until they make that one critical breakthrough; leaders who simply “tough it out” until they succeed. Unfortunately, this is a very biased view: we don’t hear all the stories of those that walked away. These stories also obscure a bigger question: are teams sticking to the right things? Refusing to quit on one project means sacrificing other, potentially more viable projects. 

When you’re in quicksand, though, it’s hard to know when a change is no longer worth pursuing. It’s time to cut your losses when:

  • You see persistent evidence that the change you’re pursuing isn’t a path to help you achieve your outcomes. 
  • You’ve exceeded the limit of resources you wanted to dedicate to testing the change (people, time, and money) and have other avenues to explore.
  • Or worst of all—by pursuing the change at all costs, you’re seeing negative and unwanted impacts within the organization. 

To avoid change quicksand:

  • Focus on clear outcomes. When we’re figuring out what changes we want to make in an organization, we encourage squads to focus on outcomes, not activities. Again, think of reducing meetings versus reports: both had the potential to give back significant amounts of time to the team (which was the outcome we wanted to achieve), but one was welcomed with no resistance, while the other received significant pushback. What’s the underlying need within your organization?
  • Don’t over-commit at the beginning. All too often we see leaders get really excited about the change, and build up a lot of excitement and energy at the beginning. Then, when things start to go “wrong”—as they always will—they feel the need to defend their decisions. Instead, start smaller and quieter. Use skateboards to test what will actually work, and test cheap and quickly so you don’t feel bad discarding failures. Then, once you’ve figured out what works, get louder and more excited about the change that’s already happening. 
  • Establish quitting boundaries upfront. Sometimes you’re simply too involved in a  project to make a fair call, so confer with others who are removed from the situation to provide feedback and advice. What trade-offs do they see? Setting deadlines or limiting the amount you’re willing to invest can be a good way to keep you honest—just like setting a limit before heading into a casino.
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Barriers to Change: Change Quicksand
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