Leading Change Gets Worse Before It Gets Better

Ever tried to turn a department or team around? The common sense dream is that it gets easier with each successful change. The counterintuitive reality is that it usually gets more difficult before it gets better.

How can that be?

Leading Change Gets Worse Before It Gets Better

I remember taking the GRE to get into grad school. This was a million years ago and they probably do things differently now. At the time, they used computer adaptive testing to shorten the length of the test. Each time you answered correctly, the computer would give progressively harder questions. The more you got right, the faster it ramped up the difficulty. If you missed one, it would make it slightly easier and then ramp up again or back off more, depending on whether you got it right or not. Through these iterations, it quickly assessed your skill level.

Because each right answer was followed by a more difficult question, it felt like I was failing. Each new question was more difficult and I spent the test questioning and second guessing my skills (and decision to go to grad school). The better I did, the more difficult it was.

Just like creating change.

You come in to the team or department, have early success with some easy, obvious wins, and then it gets more difficult. Often, a lot more difficult. How?! Why?! Why would leading change become more challenging with each victory?

Although you’re building momentum with each success, fixing the small, easy, or obvious slowly reveals the big, difficult, or hidden. Each success can leave you feeling like you’re failing.

Your challenge will be keeping heart and hope. Understand your successes bring bigger problems. Celebrate the wins. Use them to reflect on how far you’ve come.

And then get back to it. There’s more work to be done.