Change Pathway: Map Your Unique Path to Change

Why does change seem so hard? Maybe the reason is simple: While the change pathway or plan can be fairly simple, the actual path of each change is unique.

“The future is not some place we are going to, but one we are creating. The paths to it are not found, but made; and the activity of making them changes both the maker and the destination.”  — Peter Ellyard

Change happens. It happens every day. You change. I change. They change. So why does it seem so hard to create intentional change? I have worked to support intentional change in my own life, in schools, and in a range of other organizations. It seems that more times than not, planned changes often get stuck and never come to fruition.

A few years ago, we worked with a large organization with over 3000 staff members. They were in the middle of a long-range, system-wide change process. Organizational leaders recognized their efforts were not creating the impact they wanted. They were stuck and asked us to help them get back on track.

Part of our engagement was a training event, inviting the system’s most prolific change agents. Out of the open invitation across the system, about 80 people attended. We wanted a sense of their individual experiences of implementation of their change projects. As a first activity, we gave them sticky notes. We asked them to write the name of their change, when it launched, when it ended, and a sentence or two about why it had failed to implement.

One of our Associates, Dennis Cheesbrow, described a model that maps a pathway for change. It is a simple, but powerful, model that describes the stages of work that support systemic implementation of change initiatives.  We described the stages of the model to the change agents, inviting them then to post their sticky notes to show where their initiatives got stuck.

  • Unknown Work—When something is not working, people begin to search for a new approach to the challenge they face. They step beyond what they know to explore new ideas and opportunities.

    Systemic criteria help form “curbs” that define organizational expectations. People explore associated risks and needed resources for options that seem most viable. As new options emerge, they are checked for system fitness.

    Sometimes in-depth research into new paradigms and tools increases understanding about what’s possible. It may take significant time to find the approach that will work best. Or there may be an option that works somewhere else, and that approach is selected. Sometimes the Unknown Work takes months; sometimes it’s a quick fix. The outcome is a viable, workable approach to the original challenge. The new initiative meets the need and fits within the constraint criteria developed early in the process.

    Many of the change agents recognized they had not engaged fully in this exploration phase. Few of them had created their selection criteria to include system limitations and constraints. Some simply jumped to what they saw others doing. The idea of deep exploration just was not an organizational planning norm.
  • Learning Work—When a new idea enters a system, this phase opens opportunity to learn more about it. Identify key components. Compare it more deeply to the old process. Find out how it worked for others. The idea is explored with other people in the system, considering possible extended impacts. Measures and design components shape a plan for implementation. This is the time for creating a plan to integrate the intervention into the organization. 

    The change agents talked about their engagement in this work. Their steps helped them understand their initiatives and to plan for implementation. For some, this was when their initiatives faltered. Planning put too much stress on an already overloaded system. Resources for planning were scarce. Organizational silos prevented engagement that could have helped identify possible snags. A few felt that, while they planned, the organization moved on and lost focus on their particular efforts.
  • Adaptive Work—In Adaptive Work, there are two jobs to do.
    First, the initiative is adapted to fit the system. Change agents check current capacity to support the project. Infrastructure is reviewed to support the work. Small tweaks are made to refine the initiative. To the extent possible, the initiative is adapted to fit into the system.

    Second, where the initiative cannot be adjusted, the system’s practices, routines, and procedures are shifted to accommodate the initiative. This process may take time. There may be challenges that emerge as rare systemic occurrences create challenges. Unanticipated barriers that emerge may need to be resolved by adjusting processes or policies to accommodate the initiative.

    This phase is when people are trained in the new approach. They learn the needed skills and procedures, even as they are asked to suggest adjustments that will support the new initiative. Others across the system are engaged to inform and support steps toward full implementation. Each implementation has its unique path and timeline, as those in the system ease into implementation, solving challenges as they emerge. But the ongoing drive is to get the new initiative to a stage of full function in support of system-wide goals and outcomes.

    In the Adaptive Work phase, our client’s change agents did try to train people about the new initiative. Training went well for some, but others found barriers to overcome. Resources were difficult to get. People had little or no time to engage in the learning. The training, itself, often focused on operational steps, with limited practice time allotted. Some people simply didn’t have the basic skills they needed to embrace the new way.

    Few change agents had considered the need to take steps to be sure initiative and the system were coherent with each other. This awareness didn’t exist in the system. Even those who were able to fully implement recognized that their changes were uncomplicated enough that they did not need to consider particular adaptations to move their initiatives into the system.
  • Sustaining Work – When the initiative is “up and running”, working as an expected part of the system, sustaining it becomes the objective. The main consideration in this step is to continue to support and adapt as the system moves forward into new opportunities and barriers. Even initiatives that make it through the Adaptive Work can become obsolete if no attention is paid to sustaining the approach through training and new technologies. Using the phases along the Change Pathway can help to track progress and assess the impact and functioning of the approach.

    We supported leaders in the client organization as they established systemic ways to talk about change and sustainability. They developed a short list of simple rules that guided decision making and remained viable for at least five years, according to reports we received. They used the Change Pathways to create a process to increase the chances of successful change. Some groups began to use the Change Pathway model in monthly or quarterly meetings to talk about where they were and what they were doing to continue to move forward. This level of attention served to increase communication in those areas, helped to coordinate the work, and reduced competition for resources and attention across time.
  • Throughout the process there are two ongoing ideas to be accountable for.
    “What must leave the system?Sometimes people cling to past practice, even as they take on the new work. They overburden themselves and the system by creating redundant and unneeded practices. Commitment to this critical step calls for courage to say, “That no longer works, and it must go!”. Use ceremonies to release the old. Support each other in letting go.

    How do we communicate to share progress along the path?—As you use the Change Pathway model to create your unique path, others in the system need to be apprised of the changes. Celebrate internally, share externally. Reduce chances that anyone in the system will be surprised when they encounter the change. The purpose is to inform everyone about progress and commitment to the change effort. There’s no need to communicate about the change all the time. Some people aren’t involved enough to want that level of information. Too much communication can flood the system, and people become inured and quit paying attention. You just have to communicate the milestones, making a big deal of how far you’ve come as you pass from one stage to the next.

    When we presented this model, the people in the session had been involved in this particular system-wide change effort for over two years. In that time they had launched over 250 change efforts. Less than ten percent had been fully realized. The rest had “fizzled” at some point before they were fully implemented. Their stories were compelling. For some, the system had shifted due to politics, changing client needs, staff changes, or other external forces. The large majority, however listed some sort of challenge in the system that prevented full implementation, such as policies and practices, lack of resources, regulatory constraints, tendencies to cling to “old” ways that no longer worked, a handful of managers who didn’t support the change, and many other reasons. It seemed the system, itself, had rejected attempted changes.

    In the years since, we have worked with that organization on other projects. Many of the people who were in that original training session have long-since retired. The particular systemic change we were called in to support, however, has continued creating more effective access and service to their client base.

    We still see the organization creating clear and unique paths to accomplish the changes they need. They continue to be more effective at creating and supporting change efforts. This change we supported is no longer considered a change process. It has become the way they do business on a day-to-day basis.

We recognize that change is difficult in complex systems. The more complex the system, the more difficult it seems to get. But we have seen people make more change more successfully when they follow this path. As Peter Ellyard says in today’s quote, this is an individual journey. Each initiative will create its own path as it moves along this Change Pathway. Effective change agents in the 21st century can use such a map to guide their systems and organizations through the complexity of the landscapes where they live, work, and play.

Be in touch and let us hear about your journey!


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