Changing when change is hard

Issue December 2014 By Susan Letterman White

The 5 principles of strategic change

Change is inevitable. You prepare for change and change happens to you. You prepare to change and you change your thought patterns, emotions and/or behavior. Change is hard, so resistance is common. Instead of preparing for change themselves, many people analyze the behavior of others. Eventually, some will understand the connection between their behavior and a current problem, including the behavior of others, and begin to wonder how to change their thinking and actions.

After recently delivering a lecture and workshop on career advancement strategies to students at the University of Maryland Law School, who had read Power and Influence for Lawyers and were looking to apply theory to practice, I began thinking about how their needs were similar to the needs of my clients, who are:

  • Expanding their firm's market share of legal work.
  • Expanding their market share and client base.
  • Transitioning mid-career to a different role or industry.
  • Developing a culturally competent and inclusive culture.
  • Streamlining work processes for maximum efficiency and effectiveness.
  • Expanding their association's membership numbers and engagement.
  • Transitioning from organizational founders to the next generation of leaders and business owners.
  • Learning to give effective feedback to others to change their behavior.
  • Transitioning a group of people into effective and efficient client service and business development teams.

Change is easier with an understanding of the five principles of strategic change. Effective change strategies are built on these truths. Ahead, you will read about the five principles of strategic change and strategies for transformative and positive change.

Principle #1: Change is hard and filled with discomfort

Change is hard and filled with discomfort because of the loss of familiar routines and the challenge of learning new skills. Most people resist change and instead implement ideas stemming from the comfort of familiar ways of doing things. A law school with a declining applicant pool, following years of rising unemployment or underemployment numbers for its graduates, adds new law practice management courses without changing its business model. A job hunter has received few interviews and submits more applications without changing where to look for job openings, the types of jobs considered, or the content of a resume and cover letter. A group of leaders that cannot reach a decision on a growth strategy for the organization hires a consulting firm to develop a strategy instead of addressing the group's inability to have productive conversations that lead to implementable decisions.

Intentional change generally begins with a jolt of significant discomfort. A person's worldview is shaken when, after 20 years in the same organization, the person is asked to find a new position. A manager's subordinates are not delivering the expected value to the business and new business opportunities are lost. A law school is no longer able to show the return on investment to prospective students. The difference between the revenue generated by an organization and the cost to run becomes intolerable.

Confusion, denial of problems or mild annoyance with a current situation doesn't spur intentional, transformative change. An acute awareness of an extreme discomfort with a specific aspect of a present situation causes one to want to escape the discomfort. Ironically, transformative change brings its own extreme discomfort. Replacing the familiar, old ways of doing things with new thinking and skills is associated with feelings of loss and incompetence. Consequently, change efforts are often block with self-created obstacles, like an inability to articulate goals or certainty that a problem is outside of one's power or influence.

Intentional change follows feelings of significant discomfort, a vision of a better future and an idea of what to do and how to do it to start moving forward. Address obstacles with this process in mind.

  1. Develop the belief that the discomfort with the present far outweighs the discomfort with change. Make a list of consequences attached to the status quo or a new changed situation.
  2. Develop a clear vision of a better future, which provides direction and heightens one's ability to notice opportunities; i.e., what to do, abilities and how to do it. Sufficient discomfort builds a desire to escape, but without direction of where to aim or what to do.
  3. When a vision is blocked from view, it is usually because good, fresh data is missing. Replace stale data with new data through exposure to new experiences, places, people and ideas.
  4. Confidence in one's skill level may be missing. If so, add in skill development and training.

Principle #2: Monitor feelings, thoughts and behavior

Specific feelings, thoughts and behavior attached to specific points in the change process. Identifying the present feelings, thoughts and behavior to learn where you are in the change process what to do to move forward.

Early stage: Feelings of loss, sadness and frustration are common in early stages. Acknowledge and validate any and all feelings. Critical thinking is often overwhelmed with confusion about the meaning of things and an internal dialogue about being stuck in a situation beyond one's control or influence. Paralysis replaces action. Learning to distinguish between assumptions and data is an important skill. In the August issue of this publication, I wrote about the tendency to run up the ladder of inference when facing change and how to climb back down.

Nudge forward moving at this stage in several ways. Talk about the current problems and build sufficient discomfort to create a desire to escape the discomfort. Add detail to a vision of a better future to make it more alluring. Acknowledge and validate feelings of anxiety, confusion and sadness as normal. People experience change as a loss and think of loss as dangerous and something to be avoided.

Mid stage: Feelings change to discomfort, anger and desire. They spur new thoughts and action. Confusion is replaced with curiosity that leads to a deeper understanding about the present reality and noticing internal strengths and external opportunities to incorporate into a strategy. The internal dialogue about being stuck begins to dissipate.

Nudge forward movement by generating DRAC statements, which emphasize: (1) a Desire for change and to learn and master the necessary skills to transform a future vision into a present reality; (2) the Reasons to do whatever necessary; (3) the Ability to learn new skills and tolerate unpleasant feelings; and (4) a Commitment to stick with the process. Toward the end of this stage, new behaviors become apparent and initial goals are attained. Progress is visible.

Late stage: New behaviors lead to new ways of thinking and feeling. What was new becomes more familiar and comfortable. Feelings of calm, accomplishment and comfort replace discomfort and anger. The desire to accomplish more leads to an even stronger willingness and desire to learn and practice new behaviors. An objective awareness of present reality and acceptance of one's true strengths and weaknesses strengthens the belief, ability and commitment to do whatever is necessary to continue moving forward. A feedback loop is created whereby small accomplishments nudge more positive action for bigger accomplishments until significant goals are attained and the vision of a better future becomes the reality. Nudging forward movement is not necessary. Instead learning how to maintain balance is.

A few examples follow. A change in thinking about relative status of different positions sparked a successful mid-career transition for a law partner at a large firm. Replacing judgments of fault and speculation of cause of unacceptable subordinate behavior with practice in giving effective performance feedback improved the management skills of a boss and performance of a subordinate. At the intersection of the market's need for legal services, the expertise needed for law students to become lawyers able to meet that need, and the training opportunities for law students is a new business model for law schools with shrinking applicant pools.

Principle #3: Change initiatives are strategic initiatives

Specific, intentional change is an outcome of a well-planned and executed strategy, an iterative 10-step process that begins with developing a clear understanding of individual, group, or organizational values and identity. The steps are:

  1. Values and Identity - What are they?
  2. Vision - Develop one.
  3. Goals - Create a list of S*M*A*R*T goals.
  4. Scan for internal strengths and weaknesses - Identify your internal resources.
  5. Scan for external opportunities and threats - Locate your options.
  6. Create a step-by-step action plan - Use your strengths to seize your opportunities
  7. Implement the plan.
  8. Reflect on the outcomes, analyze mistakes and identify points of revision.
  9. Revise anything in steps 1-7 above.
  10. Reiterate.

Knowing who you are and what matters most to you helps when trying to create a vision. A clear vision makes it easier to identify SMART goals, which I define as Specific, Measurable, Actionable, Relevant to the vision and Time-Bound, and nudges forward movement. SMART goals inform the creation of action plans. After implementation of a plan, reflect, revise and reiterate with an attitude of resilience. All strategy skills, even resilience, can be taught and learned, which is exactly what I teach my Northeastern University students as they pursue advanced degrees.

Principle #4: Effectively leading requires strategic communication skills

Self talk and interpersonal communication are powerful methods of intentionally precipitating or inadvertently freezing forward movement in a change initiative. Strategic communication, the ability to influence an intended outcome, is another learned skill. Communication is a behavior, which changes thoughts, feelings and other behaviors.

Self-awareness of one's default communication tendencies and practicing alternative behaviors is the only way to improve one's communication skills. Consider attending workshops and engaging a coach.

Principles #5: Context matters

Individuals, groups and organizations are open and complex systems comprising (1) animate objects; (2) inanimate, tangible objects; (3) intangible ideas, like location, space, time and hidden assumptions and (4) processes as narrow delivering feedback or as broad as social culture. Systems are the context in which change occurs.

Open means the system is continuously affecting and being affected by other systems. In professional service organizations, the constant interaction of the professionals among themselves and with their clients affects the work processes and products much more than customers affect the processes and products in a manufacturing organization.

Complex means that outcomes often result from multiple drivers and are often unpredictable. Small changes can lead to significant outcomes. Never underestimate the enduring affect of an organization's history and founders. I have worked with several law firms trying to transition successfully from their historical founders to a new generation of leaders and owners. The beliefs and values of the founders are deeply rooted in the culture and can create a significant obstacle to intentional change in one firm and a fast track to a later change phase in another.

Frequently, change initiatives fall short of achieving their stated goals because they fail to take into account one or more aspects of the system. A law school that wants to stem the ebbing tide of dropping enrollment neglects to address the problem that a large percentage of their graduates over the past several years are unemployed or underemployed for reasons other than not having been taught the fundamentals of law practice management. A business that wants to improve diversity at its highest levels of power and stem the tide of partner defections doesn't address the bias in a process that compensates rainmakers and service partners differently. An individual trying to create personal change isn't ready, willing or able to change his or her thinking or behavior.


Change is inevitable and hard. Expect resistance and plan to address it. When you prepare for change and prepare to change, forward movement is easier and faster.

Susan Letterman White, JD, MS (Organization Development), is a strategic change consultant for clients in professional service industries. Her work is designed to improve organizational, group and individual performance, leadership, work-flow, diversity and inclusion, communication and business development. Her projects often include data collection and analysis, group facilitation, mediation, training and coaching.