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Ian Coyne

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How to avoid changes stalling in the difficult middle phase


When going through any change - be that changing an established organisation that is up and running or growing a business, you need to think about four factors that will make your change successful. Ian Coyne from Russell Reynolds Associates explains.

The four factors of change

  1. How hard does what you are doing feel?

  2. What is the level of excitement that is associated with the change?

  3. What is the risk of failure at that time?

  4. How much energy is needed to ensure success?

If you need to remember these - I call them the HERE model (Hard, Excitement, Risk, Energy). The vital thing about these factors is that you can control them all - and you have to to make your change successful and sustainable.

The four phases of change

The four factors of change vary depending on where you are in your change. The four phases of change are simply

  1. Before you start

  2. At the start

  3. In the middle

  4. At the end

If we contrast two key phases of change, you will quickly see why a high proportion of change fails in the difficult middle.

How it feels at the start

Excitement is high - for now. The start is that phase from idea to reality. As you take your business or change out to the world, you will have wins and losses. You cannot control this and excitement will drop in this phase - without a doubt, moving from a drawing board to reality will never, ever be a smooth and criticism-free process.

It doesn't feel hard - yet. It's hard to fall behind where you want to be this early in your change. Assuming you knew where you were starting from, and are channeling your excitement into bringing people and customers with you, it won't feel hard, yet.

Now is the time to increase the energy you think you need. Excitement and energy can go hand in hand. The start is a time where you don't need to expend huge amounts of energy - after all if you are building up a new business, every client is a new client. Every product is a new product. Every pound, dollar or yen is new revenue. But, now is the time to invest your energy to make more progress. When things get to the middle and become much less exciting and feel much harder as your diary fills and your evenings become your time to think, this early period will seem golden.

Risk goes up. Ideas never hurt anyone. They also never made anyone rich or successful. Actions make people successful. But with action comes risk. The risk of failure is not high at the start, you have time to correct whatever isn't going according to plan. You can choose where to invest based on what your people and customers are telling you. But it creeps up as you move from the start to the middle

In this phase of change, the basic formula for success is:

Reduce Risk = Channel Excitement + Increase Energy

Life in the middle

Here is where things get a little sticky. Most of the factors that make change happen are counting against you. This is the time where managing and controlling change is key. The energy you applied at the start will pay back in this phase. But here's why its tough:

Excitement hits an all-time low. Excitement usually comes from two areas. Starting something new or finishing something. The middle is bereft of both, things you want to happen - hiring people, getting new products out, communicating new elements, launching campaigns - all take longer than you expect. And the end is not quite close enough to motivate you over the line.

Thriving through the middle of change takes an intense amount of energy. The word I often use is attrition. In the absence of excitement, you need to call on your energy. Those meetings you bounced into with new clients and stakeholders early on, are now clouded by the existing clients and change that is going on.

Risk hits an all-time high. Low excitement, the need for intense energy means this is where most changes fail. Change has also gone from being real to being very real. You are moving from people liking your product to people paying for it, turning relationships into revenue.

It feels hard. You need to call on all of the work you did before you started and at the start to make this phase successful. You cannot change how hard its going to feel, but by applying energy and being aware of the factors counting against you can make this phase successful.

The formula for success in this phase is:

Managing the risk = Intense Energy + Managed Excitement + Awareness

It's tough in the middle, but you can make it successful

Acknowledging the challenges that happen in this phase is the first battle won. Finding ways to motivate in the absence of excitement and deliverables is the next challenge. 

Final warning - keep aiming for an A+

The final challenge of the middle is that it is close to the end. And now is when the temptation is to deliver 'good enough' change rather than exceptional, sustainable change. It can take very few compromises to slip from an A+ to an A and even further down. Use energy and creativity to make the middle a success and you will get the A+ in the end.

Ian Coyne's new book, 'Make Change Happen: Get to grips with managing change in business' is out now from Pearson


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