Tips for Getting Back on Track

Monday, January 3rd, 2011


Did you ever find yourself in the midst of a major change, only to see it start to fail badly? Do you begin to worry that all that time and money and hope – not to mention your reputation – is going down the tubes?. . . If so, you’re not alone. It happens a lot.

When things do derail – in fact, even when there is only a hint that things may go wrong – it’s time to do something. You need to get back on track before it’s too late.

There are three things to pay attention to:

  • Know the early warning signs
  • Find out why things are derailing
  • Take immediate action to get back on track

The Early Warning Signs

Almost every failure gives warning signs long before things get really bad. These signs are relatively easy to spot – but too often we are so immersed in the planning, or so confident in our ability to make this change work, that we fail to look up and see what’s really going on.

Here are some early warning signs:

  • You can’t get people to volunteer to take part anymore.
  • Project teams (and individuals) just go through the motions, but don’t really accomplish anything valuable.
  • Hallway talk is negative (or those dreaded blog postings are cynical and pessimistic).
  • You are missing many deadlines along the way.
  • You are way over budget because this change is taking far longer than you expended.
  • People are resisting vocally.

And this list could go on and on.

Find Out Why Things Are About to Derail

When you do see the warning signs, it is tempting to act quickly to correct problems; but this can be a huge mistake. You need data to know what’s causing the problems – so that you know what to correct.

Here’s a very sophisticated way to find out why things are getting off track: Ask people.

OK, we know that seems obvious, but when you’re in the middle of a change that is failing, it’s tempting to stop listening to people outside of your own small circle. But the best thing you can do is get out there and find out why things are going poorly.

Here are some simple ways to do that.

Use a Survey

We like to use simple surveys. We use to create, send, and collect the answers. And it’s a free service.

Make the survey short. Three to five questions. You’ll get a much higher response rate, and people will take time to answer the questions thoughtfully.

Ask open-ended questions. Don’t use multiple choice, true/ false,
or 1 t o 5 rankings. You need to hear what people are thinking and feeling. Only their written, anonymous comments will give you that information.

Convene Focus Groups

Invite people to attend a focus group. Make sure you talk to stakeholders at various levels and locations. Each group should be made up of ten or fewer people, so that they have time to talk.

Your job during the focus groups is to ask questions – and then listen. You are there to learn – not to convert.

Ask Joe

Every organization has a Joe (or a Jo) around. These people will tell it like it is with no fear of consequences. They are golden. They will tell you things that others fear to say.

The Joes in your organization can be a great source of helpful information, but be sure to verify what they tell you. You’ve got to make sure that Jo’s reaction really touches on concerns that others share.

Management by Wandering Around

Tom Peters and Robert Waterman coined this term in their classic book, In Search of Excellence. They reported that many effective leaders just wandered around with no agenda. You can’t do that all day, every day, but it can be a valuable tool. The informality of these walks around the organization gives people a chance to talk to you. And the relaxed atmosphere makes it a bit easier for people to talk openly.

Of course, you’ve got to approach the wandering correctly. You are there to learn, chat, and listen – not to preach or tell people why they are wrong. And you certainly aren’t there to gather information to use against them.

Figure Out What All This Information Means

So you’ve gathered lots of good information, now what do you do?

You need a way to interpret what you just learned. I use my own three levels of resistance as a guide when I analyze the results of surveys, focus groups, and informal conversations.

Three Levels of Resistance

  1. People don’t get it. (Level 1)
  2. They don’t like it. (Level 2)
  3. They don’t like you. (Level 3)

And one more lens. In our report, Keeping Change Alive, we list a number of factors that are important to the success of a change. The absence of any of these can cause things to go off track. Please read the full report, but here are three of those items:

  • Lack of leadership commitment
  • Lack of resources (which includes making sure people have the time to work on planning and implementation of the change)
  • No rewards or recognition along the way

As you sift through the data, see if any of these items are appearing.

And, as you sift through your notes, use the levels as lenses, looking for Level 1, 2, and 3 issues that might be working against the change. For example:

Level 1: Are you learning that people are confused or in the dark about this change? They don’t see a need for the change. Maybe they are unclear about the direction you are taking.

If so, part of your strategy to get back on track must be to make sure people understand what’s going on.

But beware. Too often, leaders limit their tactics to giving people more information when the problems lie elsewhere. It is easy to prepare e-mails, newsletters, PowerPoint shows (all Level 1 tools) and miss the Level 2 and Level 3 issues.

Level 2: Are you learning that people are afraid of this change? (Fear is an extremely powerful motivator.) Maybe they are afraid that they’ll lose their jobs, status, control, self-respect, or something else.

If so, you’ve got to address these fears head on. If their fears are unfounded, you must find ways to assure your people that their jobs are secure.

If there is some basis for their fears, then get them involved in developing strategies that ensure that these bad things won’t come to pass. For instance, let’s say downsizing could happen. Invite your people to help you develop strategies that would make the change successful in ways that would protect jobs. With this approach, you are combining the goal of the change with a positive response to their deep concerns – and showing respect by asking for their input on such a critical issue.

If the fears are correct – say, for instance, there will be downsizing, then tell people. We know it’s hard to do, but the undercurrent of fear is already killing your chances of success, so you may have little to lose.

Level 3: Are you learning that people don’t have trust and confidence in you and the leadership group? If so, you’ve got serious problems. If they don’t trust you, they are not likely to listen to your Level 1 presentations openly, or have confidence that you will address their Level 2 fears.

You’ve got to rebuild bridges. And bridges aren’t built in a day. There is no one thing you can do to turn things around. You must approach Level 3 seriously, so that people can begin to see that you are different than their perception of you. Here are some ideas:

  • Find out why they don’t trust you or your team.
  • Acknowledge those areas where you think they are right on target. I know that’s hard to do, but it can be a major step in turning things around.
  • Create ways to demonstrate that their lack of trust or confidence in you is unfounded. Ask them to watch you over the coming weeks to see if you are living up to your promises.
  • Make yourself available. Try management by wandering around, informal chats, traveling to other locations (and making sure to give ample time for informal conversation on those trips) and respond to e-mails from stakeholders.
  • Find easy places where you can work together with people who don’t trust you. By easy, I mean finding issues where both sides are likely to agree on importance and overall strategy. This gives people face-to-face assurance that you are worthy of their trust.
  • Pay attention to the Level 3 mood so you can adjust your strategies as needed.

One overall strategy. Let’s say you’ve learned why the change is bogged down. Your list has some Level 1 “I don’t get it” issues, some Level 2 “I don’t like it” concerns, and some Level 3 “I don’t like you” skepticism. In my experience, it’s pretty common to see problems at all three levels. So what do you do with that information?

You invite a cross-section of people to join you to discuss these issues. You say,
“Thanks for coming. Here’s what we learned in the survey.” (Don’t hold back. Don’t sugar coat. Let people know that you heard what they had to say.)

Then ask for their help. “This change is critically important to the success of our organization. And we’d like your help getting things back on track.” (Your invitation should have told them that you were going to ask for the ideas, so this won’t be a surprise.)

Roll up your sleeves and get to work. Make sure that this meeting results in strategies to get back on track that addresses Levels 1, 2, and 3.

And finally. . .

Remember, even the best-laid plans can derail. You’ll need to pay attention to the warning signs and have possible contingency plans ready to use when you see problems begin to develop.

The good news is that it is usually possible to turn things around with commitment and attention.

We wish you well.


© 2009 Rick Maurer. Rick uses his Change without Migraine™ to advise organizations on how to lead change effectively. He is author of many books including Beyond the Wall of Resistance. Recently, he created the Change Management Open Source Project, a free resource for people interested in change in organizations.