How to Identify Difficult Change?


Change efforts sometimes run into complicated obstacles. Correctly identifying a change effort as difficult or non-difficult allows you to select the right model. This way, when you step into difficult change you are taking the right steps from the start.

There's a saying: "If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail." Unfortunately, not all change efforts are created equal and if your change education was anything like mine, you didn't get access to difficult change models. Stepping into difficult change armed with the right models often means you are ready to successfully guide people through difficult change because you can clearly see the steps of an otherwise complicated maze. Unfortunately, change models that are not specifically designed to overcome unique difficult change obstacles often can't stretch to provide sufficient guidance and support. So the first thing we need to talk about is: How can we identify difficult change?

The top 5 factors that can be used to identify difficult change are: shift, gap, how widespread it is, duration (specifically when duration leads to emotional investment), and comfort with vulnerability.

To get an intuitive sense of how these apply to difficult change, try thinking of an individual, team, or organization you know that can benefit from improving. Ask yourself: What is the current state? What needs to change? What are the desired outcomes? And explore the following criteria to assess if this is more likely non-difficult or difficult change:

  • Will it Require a Big Shift: from a previous way of doing things to a new way of doing things. If, for example, an open, receptive individual needs to adopt greater mastery of effective listening skills this will be less of a shift than if a defensive, argumentative individual needed to acquire those same skills. If a team or organization is learning-oriented, feedback-seeking, and frequently questioning assumptions and needs to adopt greater mastery of diversity and inclusion skills it will be less of a shift than if a team that generalizes truths, sees things in black and white (us vs. them etc.) and believes that "our way is the right way" had to acquire the same skills. Will a big shift be required to achieve the desired outcomes for the individual, team, or organization you identified?

  • Is there a Big Gap: different groups of people seeing things differently. For example, when an individual who needs to change recognizes and accepts the feedback given from other people's perspectives it will be less of a gap than when an individual is given feedback from other people's perspectives but sees things very differently himself. When a team all agree about the issues they need to resolve and the way to resolve it, it will be a smaller gap than when there are sub groups in the team, each with their own different beliefs about what the issues are and how they need to be resolved. If an organization wants to adopt a new process and the different management levels are aligned, it will be a smaller gap than if different management levels are not aligned and are focused on different things. Is there a big gap in the context of the desired outcomes for the individual, team, or organization you ide