Coach's Corner

A selection from frequently–asked questions

Dear Coach,
So many times I’ve been on a training course, or I’ve read a book, and had some great ideas on how to get more out of my life or my job. I get back to the office and within three weeks all my good intentions have flown out the window – nothing changes and it’s the ‘same old same old’.
Now I’m a manager and I see my people having exactly the same experience. This means that all our efforts and best intentions for constructive change could be a waste of time and money. How do we stop this waste?

I think that we’ve all been here – sliding down the steep slope of the learning decay curve. We all discover, over time, that good intentions plus a few great ideas are not sufficient to overcome the inertia and internal / external resistance to change that’s needed for sustainable improvement.

On day ‘one’ of our enlightenment we’re fired up with enthusiasm, energized beyond belief and totally optimistic over the inevitable outcomes; on day ‘twenty-one’ we’re hard pressed to even recall what the idea was that had fuelled our great intentions.

New ideas abound. With every idea comes hope, springing eternal, and we raise our expectations to the skies. These ideas originate in our mind though and we know that our brains are programmed to de-clutter frequently; anything that isn’t tied down, etched in granite or completely assimilated is soon discarded.

Picture your mind as a series of flexible circuit boards, each one laid over those already in place and making selective contacts through common / key ideas that will inter-connect them. Where there are lots of specific connections in place the new ideas will stick better. This happens with ideas that are already familiar; however, these may not have much new value to offer. When the idea is unfamiliar though it may offer much greater value, but there are fewer points of connection so the new circuit board could be readily dislodged and discarded.

Also when the new idea was first appreciated (the ‘aha’ experience) there was a rush of neurotransmitter from the unconscious mind (amygdala) to the conscious mind (pre-frontal cortex) which got us excited and more, it was pleasurable – but this ‘rush’ fades all too quickly as other new experiences are encountered.

Everything conspires against you – unless you take definitive action. This means that your rational or conscious mind has to buy into the new idea and actively work to attach and impress it permanently on your subconscious mind. Bottom line - we have to take conscious ownership of those new ideas we want to keep and act upon and then we need to nurture them until they can survive alone. This requires deliberate effort.

Here are eight possible strategies for you to think about to achieve this. Adopting any combination of these, and the more the better, represents a positive effort to reinforce the new idea and to help it survive long enough to become a new habit.

  1. Link the new ideas to your existing values – for example, you’ve just returned from a training session on dialogue techniques. You personally value and embrace interpersonal respect, positive expectations and constructive relationships; also you’d like to see an end to political agendas, frequent misunderstandings and misconstruance among your colleagues. Your best course is to focus on enhancing your values by deliberately aligning the new strategies and techniques on dialogue to your stated values, assisting others to do likewise. Pairing values and strategies will strengthen success.
  2. Practice continuous learning – the key here is adapting the new ideas to an emerging context. Of course there’ll be objections to proposed change – it’s threatening. By pursuing the idea in fresh dimensions and flexible applications you will increase its chance for acceptance. Seek out newer aspects and angles that will help you to adapt to challenges; broaden and deepen your understanding and appreciation of the benefits; and so encourage the development of variations by others.
  3. Contract for outcomes – set up an implementation plan with measurable criteria and tangible deliverables that your boss will endorse. Link these outcomes to organizational strategic intentions in the form of clear added value and identify the related capabilities that will ensure success. You’ll need a monitoring plan and perhaps a communications strategy to support the change process – everyone wants to see the scoreboard. Then ‘just do it’!
  4. Set specific goals / standards – and identify the behaviours / capabilities that will help to achieve these goals and standards so that performance can be initiated, measured and developed among those participating – there’s nothing worse than being held responsible for something that is outside your personal influence or leverage. Post the goals and standards for all to see and focus attention on them at every opportunity – demonstrating the progress being made as you go  forward.
  5. Contract with others – find a few others who are ‘on-side’ with the concept and outcomes and share the load and the glory. Work as a focused, dynamic implementation team to explore options, exchange learnings, improve the related practices, critique efforts and offer feed-forward. Be sure to extend recognition to all involved and to share fully the rewards of success.
  6. Monitor and communicate openly – choose the key performance indicators and place the results where all can access them on demand; a hockey game would not be as satisfying if you could not glance at the scoreboard whenever you had the urge. Every change will require ongoing active or passive engagement of all staff in some way if it is to become a sustainable new reality; no one wants to work for long without a clear sight of what’s happening, preferably as it happens.
  7. Realign the infrastructure – when you change any practice or procedure you will impact a number of collateral areas perhaps in significant ways. We’re all aware of individual performance incentive initiatives which are frustrated by ‘cross-the-board’ compensation programs and by escalating practices or standards which have no additional resources or supportive upgrade training available. Infrastructure changes are usually extremely complex and convoluted yet must be addressed.
  8. Reform the organizational culture – consider the appointment of fresh heroes / role models, the selection of illustrative stories, reaffirmation of rituals and different uses of informal networks for communication and decision making. Since most improvement initiatives are directly supportive of existing strategic intentions this will normally be a question of how to intensify and/or refine current practices rather than replace them.

Engaging every one of these options may be surplus to need or not worth the invested effort, but some combination of a selection of them could underwrite your intended transition. The process will undoubtedly reinforce your change initiative and give life to your best intentions.

I hope this helps.