Change Management

Change is Hardest in the Middle

change-is-hardest-2Every grand project we seek to implement, be it personal change toward our desired future or a change initiative in ministry, has a beginning, a middle and an ending. Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Harvard Business School professor and author explains that change is hardest in the middle:

Everything looks like a failure in the middle. Everyone loves inspiring beginnings and happy endings; it is just the middles that involve hard work. I hit upon this law (and life) after observing hundreds of major changes slide into lethargy following the pep rallies and conferences, as grand promises gave way to the tough challenges of implementation. That’s the point in the middle when true believers have doubts.

We all face middles in our efforts at leading change…harsh reality sets in: This is harder to do than anyone thought. Conflicts surface. People ask why it isn’t faster. Critics attack. We may even blame ourselves for ‘failures’. Partisan bickering makes it harder to find solutions, and the middles get even more miserable.

change-is-hardest-1In his well know model of leading change, William Bridges called this the neutral zone – that in-between state is so full of uncertainty and confusion that simply coping with it takes most of people’s energy. The neutral zone is uncomfortable, so people are driven to get out of it. Some people try to rush ahead into some (often any) new situation, while others try to back-pedal and retreat into the past.

When you are in your ‘middle’ with challenges on very side, Kanter offers a checklist to determine when to persist and when to pull out:

  • Tune into the environment: What has changed since you began the initiative? Do the original assumptions hold? Is the pressing need still there?
  • Check the vision: Is the big idea still inspiring? Is it big enough to make extra efforts worthwhile?
  • Test support: Are supporters still enthusiastic about the mission? Will new people join the initiative?
  • Examine progress: Have promises been kept and milestones passed? Are there early indicators, tangible demonstrations that this could succeed? Can the next wave of results sustain supporters and silence critics?
  • Search for synergies: Can the project work well with other activities? Can it be enhanced by alliances?

Too many no’s, and it might be time to cut losses and move on. But if the answers are mostly yes, it is not over yet. You are still in the middle and still in the game. Renew the dream, regroup to remove roadblocks, surround yourself with supporters who cheer you on, and stick with it. Recognize the struggle of middles, give it some time, and a successful end could be in sight.

The fact that you have been knocked down is interesting, but the length of time you remain down is important – Austin O’Malley
Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes it’s the quiet voice at the end of the day that says: “I’ll try again tomorrow.” – Anonymous

Graham Hill
Used with permission

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About the Editor and Primary Author

Colin Noyes

Colin Noyes is a Brisbane (Australia) based coach and consultant with extensive experience in the areas of organisational health and growth, change management, leadership development, recruiting/staff development and coaching. Read more

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