6 tips to successfully navigate the “messy middle” of change management

By June 8, 2016Leadership


I’m not sure who first coined the term “the messy middle” when talking about change management, but oh man is it spot-on!

Leading major change initiatives takes a lot of time, energy, focus, and dedication. Dedication to the vision. Focus on the final objective. Energy to make it through the toughest moments. And time…time to change, pivot, and re-set. Then change, pivot, and re-set again (this goes on and on).

What this means is, if you’re leading a change initiative, you’ve got to be prepared for this. And importantly, you need to prepare for the messy middle. The point after which the newness of the change and the excitement of your new vision have worn off. The point at which you’re too far in to go back, but still so far from the promised land that you can’t necessarily see how amazing things will be when you accomplish your goals.

This thing we call the messy middle can be like quicksand. If you’re not careful you can step in it without knowing how to get yourself out — and without having the tools you need to get you safely back onto stable ground.

Here are six tips to help you navigate the messy middle of change management:

1. Stay focused on the future vision: During some of our most challenging times in the early to mid-stages of this most recent change effort, people were demoralized. Heck, I was demoralized! There were times that I got sucked into the negative vortex of thinking about what used to be. I found myself in a circular loop trying to apologize for the pain of change, commit to “making things better,” and trying to convince my people that was they had in the past, though it was comfortable, wasn’t the best for them, for our clients, or for our company. It wasn’t until we hired someone from the outside and she stopped me one day and said, “where you’re taking this place is way better. Stop apologizing for the past — it’s time that we all move on, and stay focused on what the future holds” that I realized my error. I hadn’t personally remained focused on the future vision, which means I hadn’t kept my team focused on it either. This was a huge mistake.

2. Take ownership: When you’re stuck in the messy middle of change, ownership gives you strength. You’ve got to take ownership of your reality. Where you are in the process. What you can change, and what you can’t. And you’ve got to own your emotional connection to the process. If you’re stressed, sad, anxious, frustrated, etc., you’ve got to own that stuff. The beauty is, ownership also gives you power. It reminds you that you can only control yourself. You can’t control anyone else. But in taking ownership, you can model what leadership through adversity should look like, and you can motivate others to take ownership of themselves too.

3. Communicate: George Bernard Shaw has been credited with coining the phrase, “the single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” This couldn’t be more true! Clear, consistent communication is key in any change management process. It’s 10x’s more important when you’re slogging through the messy middle of a change process. If it’s tough for you as the leader to stay focused and engaged in the process, and you know all (or at least most) of the details, imagine how much more difficult it is for the people who have signed up to follow you through the process. You owe it to them to communicate as clearly and as frequently as possible.

4. Celebrate the small wins: It’s not in my nature to celebrate. I’m primarily motivated by the challenge of something, not by accomplishing it. What that means is that the day I overcome something, I get a bit of a rush from the win, but pretty quickly after that I’m faced with a deep longing to be in the fight again. It’s the adrenaline rush of the game that fires me up, not knowing at the end that my team has won. This is something I know I have to work on, because as a leader it limits me. When I’m in the messy middle of major change, it’s critically important that I stop to celebrate the small wins with my team. If we’re changing 300 process steps, my focus is on getting all 300 done. But when we finish updating that critical step 25, I owe it to my team and the people working on step 25 to stop, recognize the value of their contribution and the milestone of solving this individual problem (and it’s importance to the ultimate goal), and celebrate. Celebrating these small wins is what helps keep my team motivated (and yours too!). So it’s essential that we make time for celebrating, and that we make it a priority in our change process.

5. Get outside perspective: One of the most valuable things we did in our major change process was to bring in two outsiders to guide our efforts. These two guys are C-level, and they have significant experience in change management, information technology solutions, structural change, etc. They’re not doing the work for us — and they’re not even engaged with us every day. But they plug in at critical times and have helped us get un-stuck on multiple occasions.

6. Use the buddy system: When I was a kid I went to a YMCA summer camp one year. They took us to the beach one day, and I remember the counselor breaking us up into groups of two. He drilled into us that we needed to remember the buddy system. Wherever we went that day, we needed to take our buddy with us. That way, if we got lost, there was a 2nd person there to help us. If we got hurt, there was someone there to go get help. If anything happened, we had a partner who was there to step in and help. The same thing is true when you lead a change process. Leading change will drain you. It’ll sap you physically, mentally, and emotionally. If you have someone alongside you leading the change with you, it makes a huge difference. I’ve found the benefits to be that when I’m down, there’s someone there to help pick me up. When I need a day to decompress, there’s someone there to keep things moving forward while I’m gone. When I have a crisis of fear, there’s someone there to remind me of the vision and the end goal, and to help re-energize me for the next battle. There’s someone there to commiserate with me when things are bad, to challenge me to keep fighting, and to celebrate when we reach a key goal. Doing this kind of work alone is no fun at all. Having a buddy alongside for the ride makes all the difference.


Here’s to sharpening your saw!

Image courtesy of Artur84 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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