Want change that sticks? You need a game plan

A member of the senior management team in a thriving boutique hedge fund, Coleman was sitting across from me in one of the yellow beanbags that populate the firm’s meeting rooms. “Our people are very smart and driven. As we are growing in size, this place is becoming more political, and competitive behaviors are starting to edge out our collaborative founder spirit,” he said.

Coleman is a visionary with excellent presentation skills, and his firm had engaged me as his coach to advance his influence with internal stakeholders. Over the past year, he had ruffled feathers by pushing back too hard or had lost ground by instinctively falling back into his über-accommodating negotiation style. Not surprisingly, Coleman had found it to be nearly impossible to change based on willpower alone. Indeed, standing on their own, personal resolutions (just think New Year’s) carry a mere 8 percent chance of success!

Here are seven steps that will set you up to win:

#1: Commit yourself.

As Einstein said, nothing happens until something moves. Any form of public commitment to your change goal increases your chances of success by a factor of 10[1]. One of our clients literally put her flat on the market to shake out of her inertia and to apply for positions in geographical areas she was interested in. If you want to get out of a comfort zone that has long lost its appeal, what is the first domino you need to kick over so that the rest can follow?

#2: Make it inspiring. 

We know from fMRI studies that our brains experience change (even if positive) as being as painful as breaking bones.[2] Words such as “I should…” or “I have to…” are red flags for motivation. Only one out of every seven cardiac patients, even if faced by death, is able to follow doctor’s orders and start a healthy lifestyle. If we cannot connect needed change to who we aspire to be, we are doomed to fail.

It is the idea of realizing a dream that makes change inspiring. We often ask our clients to go through a Blue Sky Visioning exercise to define what kind of a leader they aspire to be. We also use Vision Boards (a collage of photos, pictures and words) to help clients conceptualize their “ideal life”. These exercises inform what specific action items need to follow. In this spirit: what would you like to start doing (rather what do you need to stop doing)?

#3: Focus on one or two behaviors at a time.

We all recognize this feeling of being overwhelmed. Did you know that the average senior executive engages in 139 distinct tasks every week? Each one of these tasks is made up of many smaller choices, and 50 percent of these choices are made in nine minutes or less[3]. To focus energy where it matters, Steve Jobs simplified and decided to wear a black turtleneck and jeans every day. Less is more.

Based on the research of psychologist Herbert Simon, to optimize impact we need to be “satisficers.” Different from maximizers who consider all the alternatives possible, satisficers use criteria and standards to choose and don’t worry about the possibility that there might be something better. What are the one or two behavioral changes that will get you closer to reaching your goal?

#4: Stretch yourself step by step.

In addition to limiting the number of behavioral changes we take on, we need to be mindful about the depth of behavior change. As you begin to practice a new behavior, think smaller than small. Start by taking tiny baby steps that take almost no effort and little time. As you develop confidence that you are moving in the right direction, you can create bolder experiments to further push you out of your comfort zone.

A good way to pace yourself is to ask the following questions:

  • On a scale of 1 to 10, where are you today when it comes to acting in a desired way? (Let’s assume you come in at a 3).
  • Where would you like to be in an ideal world? (Say an 8).
  • Now if you were to move the needle up a notch or two (to get you to a level 4 or a 5), what specifically would that look like?
  • What are some of the things you can take on to get you there?

#5: Be specific.

When we use the abstract form of paying with a credit card, we spend an average of 15-30 percent more than when we use cash. If you can’t measure it, it doesn’t count. It is not enough to state “I want to become a better listener.” Make it explicit: “Over the course of the next three months, I will aim for a 70/30 ratio of listening versus speaking, and I will ask others to hold me to it. During each of my meetings I will ask at least one open-ended question that begins with ‘what’, ‘how,’ or ‘when’. I will keep a daily log to keep track of my successes and to learn from my failures.”  Looking for metrics will keep you honest and allow you to celebrate milestones.

#6: Plan for resistance.

When Michael Phelps had a goggle malfunction during the Beijing Olympics, he still swam to a world record. How? Phelps credits his coach who had been creative in preparing the Olympian for the element of surprise, including training in pitch darkness. An integral part of successful change involves planning for rough patches.  One of my clients is fond of using a “Failure Mode & Effect Analysis”, which catalogs not only what might go wrong, but also develops responses according to both the likelihood of occurrence and the impact each scenario would have.

If you are training to be an Olympic swimmer, a goggle malfunction might not be frequent, but it could be detrimental if you don’t have a strategy for dealing with it. What will most likely cause you to fall off track? What tactics have you used successfully in the past to overcome such obstacles? And what will help you remember to practice new behavior? Layer some conscious reminders into your life via smartphones, computers or sticky notes.

And as you are moving along, don’t forget to celebrate. Our clients journal on what went well; they may give themselves a silent “Way to go!” or share their wins with others. Associating positive feedback with change glues these new habits into our brain[4].

#7: Have others at your side.

In a study of 1,000 people who were asked to gauge the likelihood of a famous person going to heaven, Mother Theresa came in highest at 79 percent (Bill Clinton got a 52 percent chance…). The only group ranked higher were the respondents themselves who rated their chance at 87 percent[5]. And the more senior we are professionally (Hello, CEOs!), the more likely we are to fall prey to an inflated self-image: we speak to our own reasoning and ignore good advice.

Make no mistake: you are the one and only CEO of your life. However, most successful change involves having a solid sounding board to back you up. Gather around you experienced, informed advisers who both support and challenge you. A strong sounding board is interested in your story, they ask courageous questions, listen carefully and share insights you can respect. Who are the people with whom you will share your change goal, and how do you want them to hold you accountable?

And how long until I will see the change take root?

…this is typically what our clients will ask us. Well, it depends. The more straightforward the change and the more motivated you are to invest in the game plan, the shorter the time to reach your goal. Assuming you practice 30 minutes a week, it will take you about three months to create a new habit[6].

You will know that you have arrived the moment you no longer need to invest deliberate energy into a new behavior and when the act of not doing it feels weird!

[1] Journal of Clinical Psychology, (December 13th, 2012).

[2] Smith, E. E., (2011, March 28th). Retrieved from http://www.businessweek.com/lifestyle/content/healthday/651291.html.

[3] Sheena I., (2012). How to make choosing easier. Ted Talk.

[4] Duhigg, Ch. (2012). The Power of Habit. New York, NY: Random House.

[5] Gino, F., (2013). Sidetracked: Why our decisions get derailed and how we can stick to the plan. Boston, MA.: Harvard Business School Publishing.

[6] Kegan, R. and Lahey, L.L. (2009). Immunity to change. Boston, MA.: Harvard Business School Publishing.