March 30, 2020

Keeping the Team on Track During Organisational Change (or a global pandemic)

It’s a marathon, not a sprint.  Never has that phrase been truer than when you’re undertaking organisational change or surviving a global pandemic (unless of course you’re actually running a marathon).

If you draw a graph of team energy and motivation over time for any transformational programme, you’ll end up drawing a U-shaped curve.  Predictably, energy is high at the start.  You’re addressing a compelling event or a burning platform.  You have a well-articulated vision of the future state you’re going to build.  Your executive sponsor has given her ringing endorsement at the kick-off event.  Everyone is motivated and fired up with a sense of purpose or driven by adrenalin and concern.

Perversely, energy is also high at the end.  There’s something in the human psyche that kicks in when the finish line is in sight.  Suddenly the distance left to run is finite.  Time to use that reserve of energy you’ve been holding back.  It’s the psychology of the gym class – “leave nothing in the tank”.  The proximity of success – and respite/relief – is a powerful motivator and everyone becomes infused with a renewed sense of urgency.  To quote marketing guru Seth Godin who wrote about this problem: “no-one quits the Boston marathon at mile 25.”

The problem is the bottom of that U-shaped curve – what Godin called The Dip in his book of the same name.  It represents the point of the project when your plan has encountered reality and you realise that your risk assessment was depressingly accurate, or even understated your task.  Day in and day out, the team must work through the challenges and barriers encountered by every project trying to lead humans, who are naturally resistant to change, through an organisational transformation.  Unsurprisingly, the risk of the team becoming weary and demotivated is high.  The success of your programme and your recovery will, in large part, depend on how well you help your team deal with the dip.

So, what can you do?  How can you maintain motivation and momentum through this period?  How do you push through the doldrums?  The answer depends on the nature of the individual programme but here are three basic ideas that are universally beneficial and apply equally well during a pandemic!

  1. Look after each other. Some people are self-motivating and are comfortable working by themselves towards a particular goal.  In my experience, these people are in the minority.  The rest of us need the support.  Psychologically we’re pack animals, like wolves or sheep (choose the metaphor that you prefer).  We feel better knowing we’re not alone during tough times, that someone has our back and will tell us “It’ll be OK”.  It might sound like a cliché but supportive teams, teams that make it through the dip, almost develop into a family.  Team members care about each other’s wellbeing.  They have a strong team identity and develop a degree of bonding that can outlive the project. Showing care and concern now will generate huge benefits for you when things return to normal.
  2. Create short-term goals. In his book When?, Daniel Pink talks about “the power of fresh starts”.  On long projects (or any long activity), we get caught up in the here and now and lose perspective.  Suddenly we’ve lost sight of the wood and all we can see is trees.  When you are running a marathon, you don’t think about the 26 miles, it’s too daunting.  Most people break it down into smaller, more psychologically and physically manageable chunks, the next landmark, the next mile marker, even the next lamppost.  Psychologically, breaking things down into smaller goals does two things: it taps into the energy people feel at the start of a new activity and it creates a bow wave of success and achievement.  Both are powerful motivators.

A key point to remember is that a large part of the power of goals comes from celebrating them.  This applies to intermediate goals as much as major milestones because it helps you build up a bow wave of achievement and a perception of progress that motivates and energises the team. At times of great uncertainty celebrating small wins becomes even more important in maintaining motivation and reducing worry.

  1. Become comfortable with the idea that things will change. Cultivate resilience, for yourself and your team.  The programme will All transformation programmes do.  As you progress, you’ll discover unknown unknowns.  They’ll become new known knowns that the programme will have to adapt to deal with.  People will leave and new ones will join.  In this respect, organisational change and navigating unprecedented global events is a lot like sailing.  Success is never a straight line from A to B but rather a series of zig zags, tacking to catch the wind in the most effective way.

This is a huge subject and I’ve only begun to skim the surface in this article.  For now, I’ll leave you with three key thoughts – a challenge, a misconception and a reminder.

  • The challenge – Your team is likely to be virtual – geographically and organisationally dispersed – and divided up into separate areas of responsibility with different deliverables, goals and measures of success. This makes creating a mutually supportive environment both more difficult and more important.
  • The misconception – Collaboration and caring are not the same. You can collaborate effectively and still not be motivated.  You can attend the Monday stand-up call and participate effectively but still spend the weekend dreading it and find it dull and demotivating.  Slack, Skype, or any other purely tools-based “solution”, is not the answer. Caring requires something more.
  • The reminder – Don’t forget the needs of the change team itself when you’re considering how to motivate people through change. It’s easy to focus on the dip for those affected by the programme and we rightly invest in comms plans, training, and town hall meetings to maintain momentum for the many. But what about the few? The change team are leaders in their own right and need to be maintained and supported as much, if not more, if they are going to successfully lead change.  Don’t forget to help them manage their own dip.

Seth Godin says that the first step in getting through the dip is to realise it exists.  I believe the next step is to remember your programme’s success depends on the people in your team.

Here at Changemaker, we support organisations and individuals in delivering sustainable and lasting change.  When supporting teams in change we work with the human being as well as the process enabling organisations to achieve the outcomes that really matter to them. If you want to learn more about us, take a look at our website or email us at

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