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Navigating the Messy Middle of Change


You are now in the middle of a change. How you arrived here doesn’t matter. It could be a planned change gone awry, or perhaps a crisis forced you to do or be something different. It feels as if you are stranded in the median of a busy freeway with traffic speeding by in both directions: you can’t go back, and you must move forward even if the path isn’t clear.

The messy middle of change is marked by frustration, insecurity and sometimes despair. A misstep here can cause people to check out or be caught up in anger. Successfully navigating the middle of a disruptive change, however, places you on the path to acceptance, support and new possibilities.

Here are seven strategies to help:

  1. Acknowledge reality. Nothing ever changes until people acknowledge the truth. Now is the time to be honest and open about your situation and what it will take to navigate this change. You don’t have to be brutal, but you must be honest.
  2. Respect the past, but focus on a positive vision for the future. Unless you are dealing with fraud or intentional misconduct, everything that frustrates you in your organization today was someone’s well-intentioned action to do what they thought was best. Explain that the solutions which served you well in the past are no longer suited for the current environment — but you don’t need to disrespect the past to focus on a different future.
  3. Define what is and isn’t changing. Uncertainty creates confusion that slows the response time to make the change work and can contribute to resistance. Clarity promotes focus and perspective—both of which minimize distraction and frames the change in proper context. You don’t want people to feel as if everything is changing if it isn’t. You also don’t want people to assume that nothing is different when the impact of the change is substantial.
  4. Tell people what it means for them. You have heard the old adage that humans tune into radio station WIFM – What’s In It for Me. The volume of that signal increases in the midst of change. Don’t assume that any detail is too small to become a point of concern. If you are asked a question for which you don’t know the answer, admit it; empathize with the person; provide a time table for when they can expect an answer; and make sure that you let them know if that timetable must be shifted for any reason.
  5. Ensure the important stuff continues. Have you ever become so caught up in an activity that you lose track of time? Your focus is so intense that the present is the only thing that matters. That can happen during change, too. You become so fixated on getting through the change that other activities slip through the cracks. Your business has crucial functions that must continue regardless of anything else that is going on. Identify them and make them a priority. Doing so ensures that your operation remains effective and sends the message that you see a future that extends past the change.
  6. Commit to transparency and over communicate. The desire for information increases during times of change. People want to know how things are going, what’s coming next and why actions are (or are not) being taken. A lack of transparency creates a vacuum that will be filled by conspiracy theorists and imaginations in overdrive. Your communication should mix planned updates with as-needed responses to address important developments. Over-communicate at the beginning and then solicit feedback from your team to determine if you should change the frequency.
  7. Celebrate the wins. We tend to celebrate the end or completion of things – birthdays, anniversaries, retirements. Why wait? What gets reinforced gets repeated, and you want to encourage behavior and performance that moves you toward the future. Nothing lifts the spirits in the face of a difficult change like good news about successes.

The messy middle of change can become the wasteland where good ideas go to die — or a place that creates confidence and energizes action. Your environment depends on your ability to navigate through it.