Getting Unstuck: An Executive Guide

How to get your change back on track

“Everything looks like a failure in the middle.”

That’s what Harvard Business School professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter realized when researching organizational change, creating the now famous “Kanter’s Principle.” Every attempt at change faces resistance. 

But there’s a difference between “the middle” and getting stuck. When you’re stuck, progress stalls, people begin to doubt change is possible, and ultimately, the change evaporates. You end up at worse than the status quo—because now, there’s evidence that change can’t happen here.

The good news is you can, in fact, get unstuck. This guide is meant to help you discern if your change is just in the middle or really stuck, and then help you figure out how to get moving again. 

Why You Should Trust Us

In the last 10 years, we’ve led wide-scale transformations at over 300 organizations ranging from startups to Fortune 500 companies, in dozens of industries and divisions, affecting thousands of employees. As a result, we’ve seen just about every permutation of change and understand how people react to and resist new ways of working.

Are You Actually Stuck?

When leading change, not all friction is fatal. Barriers can be surmounted. In fact, some resistance is normal and healthy. Early stumbles are to be expected, and change rarely goes as smoothly, or as quickly, as initially planned. However, there are some telltale signs that your efforts are at risk: 

  • Stagnation. Despite repeated efforts, measurable progress is stubbornly stalled, and you’re running out of ideas to try to move things forward.
  • Pervasive resistance. More and more people are either apathetic to the change, or ignoring it altogether. There’s a growing and sustained disbelief that the change is possible.
  • Leadership disengagement. Fellow leaders—especially those who should be shepherding it—are moving on, and/or focusing their attention elsewhere.
  • Resource flight. Resources are being moved elsewhere, or are being co-opted by other programs or change efforts.

If your program is beginning to feel any of these conditions, it’s time for decisive action and a concerted push to get things back on track. 

Get Unstuck: The Basics

If this is the first time the change has gotten stuck, one of the following interventions may be enough to get things going again. 

Streamline your efforts. If your project is consistently under-resourced, or people aren’t buying in because it’s too ambitious, you may need greater focus.

  • Reduce the scope. Given the resources that are within your control, what is possible? What smaller goal can you accomplish quickly? Reaching realistic milestones can re-motivate an otherwise skeptical team. 
  • Experiment to prove change is possible. What new behavior could you test? What simple metrics would demonstrate change has taken place? One successful change can serve as a proof point to argue for more resources.
  • Go where there’s energy. Where are people most open to change? This could mean piggybacking off something that people are excited about, or finding a common pain point that everyone wants resolved.
  • Eliminate or delay other work. Change takes time and energy—which is often spent on day-to-day work or other initiatives. Can you remove tasks from your team’s plate so they can concentrate on change?

Engage in politics. Change threatens the existing power structure—so if you want to get anything done, you’re going to have to get political.

  • Build a coalition. It’s easier to ignore one voice than a crowd. Who else in your organization is pushing for change? How can you find like-minded individuals, and how can you support each other as you take on the status quo?
  • Go rogue(ish). To get things done, you may have to work outside official channels (but obviously, don’t do anything illegal). What bureaucracy can be safely sidestepped? Can you convince a high-ranking sponsor to provide cover?

Force a confrontation. Sometimes change can be sabotaged simply by ignoring it or infinitely delaying it under the guise of “just asking questions.” Bring it into the light so you know where you stand.

  • Open up debate. Have you invited people to share concerns and feedback? Do people feel comfortable debating the merits of a change? Or are people simply uncomfortable with trying something new? You won’t know unless you ask—so create forums for people to actively discuss and start working through potential issues.
  • Challenge or exit detractors. If you get continuous pushback from particular individuals, first seek to understand. If they’re open to negotiation or discussion, it’s worth exploring how to work together. But if they persist, they simply might not be a good fit for the next stage of the organization, and you should move to exit them quickly.

Challenge your own leadership. Leaders are often depicted as having a crystal clear vision of a better future, and boldly leading their teams through every challenge without hesitation. But this image is just a mirage. Every leader faces moments of doubt, and has areas in which they can improve.

  • Build your own skills. Leading change inherently requires managing your, and your team’s response to uncertainty. Are you able to emotionally regulate under duress? Can you effectively negotiate? Is your approach to making decisions both sound and evident to your teams? A coach or mentor can be a great help in evaluating how you can become more effective.
  • Communicate. Have you adequately shared your vision and demonstrated what’s in it for others? You might feel like you’re repeating yourself, but teams need repetition and consistency before the message sinks in. And remember, communication is a two-way street: you should listen just as much (if not more) than you talk.  

Get Unstuck: Radical Action

If you’ve already attempted the above interventions—and if the change is truly essential—it’s time for radical action.

Burn the boats. Inspired by the strategy of Hernán Cortés, who scuttled his ships to eliminate any option of retreat, this approach forces the organization to fully commit to the change without fallback options. Jeff Bezos’ infamous API Mandate from the early 2000s, for instance, informed every team that they must use service interfaces, and that anyone who didn’t would be fired. This approach requires:

  • Drastic measures. Eliminate legacy systems or processes that compete with the new initiative—for example, if moving to a digital platform, decommission all analog or outdated systems immediately.
  • Clear mandates. Issue a clear directive that the new way is the only way forward, leaving no room for reverting to old methods.
  • Follow-through and support. Give your leaders the authority to make changes to the system (rather than waiting for approval) and provide intensive training programs to help employees adapt quickly. 

Shock the system. Introduce a dramatic and immediate change to jolt the organization out of complacency—or, take advantage of a market or competitor shock to push through a change. COVID’s push to remote work, for instance, rapidly accelerated the adoption of remote tools like Zoom and Miro. Fast change demands:

  • Rapid implementation. Roll out significant changes quickly, such as a major reorganization or the introduction of new technology.
  • Intensive training. Follow up with intensive training programs to help employees adapt quickly. 

Create public pressure. Create a sense of urgency and accountability by making public commitments to stakeholders. Domino’s president Patrick Doyle, for instance, acknowledged the company’s failings in their “Pizza Turnaround” campaign, and developed a better product.  Commit to: 

  • Public announcements. Announce change milestones and deadlines to customers, shareholders, or the public.
  • Resources. Provide the resources required to make real change or risk demotivating the teams. 
  • Progress reports. Regularly update these stakeholders on progress and setbacks. 

Overhaul leadership. Sometimes, existing leadership is too entrenched in old ways, or simply disagrees with the new direction. Bringing in new leadership with a fresh perspective can revitalize the change effort. It also signals to the organization that significant change is happening. Consider both:

  • External hires. Bring in leaders from outside the organization who have successfully led similar changes.
  • Internal promotions. Promote innovative thinkers within the organization who have been vocal about needed changes.

Mandate a training intensive. Implement intensive training boot camps focused on the skills and mindsets needed for the change. Slack, for instance, set aside business operations for an entire week so that its staff had time to catch up on internal training. This can take the form of:

  • Targeted training. Develop boot camps tailored to different roles and levels within the organization.
  • Immersive experiences. Use simulations, role-playing, and hands-on activities to make training more impactful. 

Call for a temporary moratorium. If all else fails, pause the current change initiatives to reassess and recalibrate the strategy. This allows for strategic adjustments without the pressure of ongoing implementation. To start:

  • Audit and Review. Conduct a thorough review of what’s working and what’s not.
  • Stakeholder Feedback. Gather feedback from all levels of the organization to understand pain points.

Change—and Change Resistance—Is Continuous

Congratulations, your change is back on track. It’s highly likely, though, you’ll continue to encounter different kinds of resistance as the work expands. We’ve identified 25 common barriers to change, as well as how you can overcome them.

Remember, resistance is completely expected—but now you have evidence that change can happen within your organization, and that teams have overcome these challenges before. We like to think of change as a muscle: the more you use it, the stronger you’ll get. Looking for a coach? NOBL can help.

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