10 Steps to Achieve Sustainable Change
It took me twenty years to discover that I love change and that I have a panache for it. I am not in love with it simply for the sake of change but because I believe in (and have witnessed) the positive impact change can have on people, processes, and outcomes when it is called for, practical, and strategic. I also love seeing how change can inspire and motivate people to consider old ideals, remove restrictions, and forge future opportunities.
Although inspiration can be a catalyst for change, sustainable change is largely dependent on belief. Temptations, excuses, and distractions can easily erode the initial headway we make when we begin an improvement process. Lasting change requires an individual (or a group) to believe that it is essential – as if living without it was not an option. We see it time and time again, if belief is not present, initial efforts result in momentary gain but eventually return to baseline.
Below are ten steps I have implemented with clients (and in my own life) with repeated success. Like most programs, these steps are highly dependent on honesty, energy, and optimism. When individuals, groups, organizations, and societies lack these elements, it becomes paramount to understand any underlying motivations to maintain specific behaviors and processes before embarking upon change. Most likely, there are systemic issues or long-held beliefs that need to be addressed first. If they are not understood, your efforts are likely to be futile.
However, if the time is now, these ten steps will produce meaningful, impactful, and long-lasting outcomes - just as they have for the individuals, groups, and organizations I have worked with.
STEP 1: Analyze the situation or problem
All too often we jump from problem to solution without considering the “how’s” and “whys” of what brought us to where we are. Taking time to complete a high-level, cursory review of the potential reasons, beliefs, and entrenched behaviors that lead you to this particular point is the first step to sustainable change. This step requires a retrospective; a historical understanding and an analysis of the “meaningful” moments that impacted key decisions, choices, or actions that are fundamentally ingrained within you or the group/organization. A retrospective should reveal 3-5 key elements that have led you to this particular situation. With this list in place, the next step is to review the root cause(s).
NOTE: A retrospective is most effective and revealing when neutrality and objectivity drive the review. If analyzing how you got where you are is emotionally charged, consider meeting with a counselor or a coach and/or hiring a trained facilitator (for groups) to guide this activity.
STEP 2: Identify the root cause(s)
After you have completed your retrospective, consider the root cause(s) of the problem(s). For example, when I have been called to help manage complex conflict and the first emotion I identified is anger, my primary responsibility is to understand the reason(s) for the anger. There’s likely more than one root cause. Leaving contributing causes unaddressed will result in relapse.
Identifying root causes requires time, honesty, and awareness. Dig into core concepts, behaviors, beliefs that limit your success/fulfillment. Surround yourself with people and things that will coach you up not tear you down. Anything else will permit excuses and result in relapse and/or giving up. When identifying root causes gets tough, seek counseling or coaching to help you uncover the issues and blockers you might be unable to explore independently and/or you are unconscious/unaware of. Plan on using these external resources whenever you face roadblocks or relapse. It isn’t a matter of if but when. You will need support at some point.
STEP 3: Consider the validity and value of each cause
With moments and causes in-hand consider the past, present, and future. Some of what got you here was helpful. These past items might be worth carrying into the future. Others you would be wise to dispose of. Below are a sampling of questions you can ask while you consider each cause:
How have these items served me or hurt me?
What is worthy of holding onto because it supports positive outcomes?
What is worthy of releasing because it diminishes capacity?
Once you have a list of items that no longer serve you (and are ready to let go of) acknowledge those items for being tools that valiantly tried to protect or help you even if they were ultimately destructive. Hating your history and prior choices will not serve to nurture your future growth or support lasting change. Hatred often leads to blind-spots and cover-up. Inevitably it will cause issues down the road if not objectively acknowledged and addressed.
STEP 4: Own your narrative and be present
Whether you are using this process for personal or organizational change, one of the most important components to sustained change is personal responsibility (individual and collective). Excuses, blaming others, or explaining away your history distracts you from your truth and the role you played in arriving at this juncture. Your focus should be to:
Own your narrative and your present choices. You are responsible for how you want to tell your story. Do you want your story to be a “woe is me” story or “stuff happened and I’m better, stronger, and more intelligent for it” story? Choosing how you want to behave, what you want to tell, and where you want to go is up to you.
Stay present. What’s done is done. You can either hold on to old habits and negative stories which perpetuate a circle of negativity or you can let them go by witnessing them as pillars of strength and a catalyst for future success. The future is unknown. There is no sense in permitting prior trauma to assume the driver’s seat and derail you with assumptions and anxiety before you have even gotten started.
Stop shaming yourself for tools you did not know you needed. Uncover what you do not know and own it. Pivot your idea of “weaknesses”. They are now opportunities for self improvement.
STEP 5: Acquire tools
This step is in direct alignment with my blog titled: Pipeline to Creativity: 5 Ways to Open the Valve. Everyone has the capacity to be creative. Change is mostly about believing you have the ability to solve any problem you (or your organization) are confronted with. And, having capacity means that you understand the importance of life-long learning. We are constantly acquiring knowledge, skills, and tools to be successful. Falling in love with learning is the cornerstone to fulfillment. As a species gifted at generating problems, we will never find ourselves in short supply of challenging situations. Therefore, having a “tool acquiring” mindset breeds inquisitive, solution-focused, optimistic approaches. This does mean a slightly slower process but the end result is more sustainable and of higher quality than when we deny the existence of our weaknesses and avoid addressing them.
STEP 6: Evaluate your options
Does life provide us too many options or are we just not equipped with the right skills? Or, maybe the more important question is: Do we have the self-awareness, needed to navigate those choices wisely and correctly? How often have you watched someone (maybe even yourself) back themselves into a challenging situation simply because they didn’t have the confidence to say no or the skill set to avoid getting sucked into someone else’s chaos?
What would have happened in that situation if they had the skills and personal confidence to avoid emotional quicksand and the urge to solve someone else’s problem that ultimately needed to be solved by the originator.
Instead of unconsciously jumping into relationships or situations that are intrinsically laced with pitfalls, incorporate some of the elements below to increase the likelihood of success:
Permit pause before action. Of all the other skills listed this is the most challenging to get comfortable with but it is the most valuable tool you can use once you embrace it.
Consider your options and the possible outcome of each. Why not analyze the possibilities before you are stuck back-tracking or resolving a problem that could have been avoided?
Listen to yourself. Just like the technique applied during a multiple-choice test question, trust your instinct. If you find yourself questioning an alternative, push past your self-doubt and trust that you had the right answer originally. If you don’t believe in your choice you will not remain committed to it.
STEP 7: Create realistic goals
Don’t aim for the moon when you have not left the gate. When you are trying to develop confidence and implement sustainable change, it is best to reduce overwhelm by starting with practical, achievable tasks you can achieve. This initial approach may feel like you are cheating or taking the easy road but small, early wins at the beginning are positive reinforcers that hard-wire confidence for more challenging problems in the future.
And, less obvious but more importantly, these less challenging tasks offer you a specific opportunity to learn the technical skills needed to implement more complex tasks down the road. Your primary goal should not be limited to “being” successful but focused on learning “how” to be successful. Learning the “how” begins the process of identifying and collecting the tools you will need. Each successive challenge will introduce more tools. This approach guarantees success time-and-time again no matter what problem you face. You will be able to add more complex goals once you have a few wins, establish healthy habits, and cross a few less demanding tasks off of your “to do” list.
NOTE: A simple tool to help you get comfortable with achievable goals are sticky notes. Because they are small, you have limited space to make lofty, complicated, language-laden goals. They encourage you to make clear, concise, measurable goals.
STEP 8: Create actionable, measurable steps to achieve each goal
Goals that are vague are hard to achieve. If you are not able to express an exact, expected outcome from your goal then you should re-think and re-write your goal.
Equally important to consider is how hard your goal will be to achieve. If you set your goal to hike a 14,000 foot mountain tomorrow but only walk to-and-from your car today - your goal is most likely too hard at this particular moment. Reconsider your goal or, be realistic about the date you expect to achieve it. You get to set your goals. Create progressive steps that will keep you moving in the right direction.
NOTE: Each of your initial goals should have approximately 3-4 steps but never more. If there are more, divide the tasks into phases. You could also add “value” points to each task to help create priorities.
STEP 9: Establish a timeline
This step might seem obvious but a lot of my clients, whom I thought would have had this hard-wired into their approach, forgot to place timelines on their expectations. And, more importantly, when we did develop timelines, they required coaching to make those dates realistic. On the surface change sounds easy. Practically speaking though, it is hard. Take one day, one week, one month at a time. Sustainable, enduring change is not won in a sprint. It represents a long-term commitment to yourself. Stay present. If you experience setbacks, get hyper-focused on the here and now rather than allowing the overwhelm to discourage you.
STEP 10: Be kind, be positive, be proud
I cannot stress the importance of this step enough. If you are hard on yourself for being imperfect and for having set backs you will never be successful. This is not to say you should not have expectations that challenge you. This step is more about choosing kind words when the bottom is closer than the top. Coaching yourself up (and your team) when the going gets tough improves morale and introduces optimism when negativity is set to win.
And, never underestimate the power of support. Asking for help immediately turns weaknesses into strengths. Reward your efforts with positivity and take pride in your hard work.
In the end, remember that change stretches us and teaches us. If your efforts do not meet your expectations they should not be construed as failure. Revisit the prior steps and see if there is something you have missed or forgotten. More likely than not you did not identify an underlying root cause (but can now) or your goal(s) where either too big or lacked specificity.
When a barrier becomes stifling, channel your creativity. It establishes a perspective of capacity to overcome challenges. The possibility of a solution always exists; it just might not be the one you were aiming towards or one you even knew existed.