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Building Structure for Change

Building Structure for Change

Structure is the last of four critical elements of successful change. (See previous posts for discussions of commitment, clarity, and capacity.) So, if it’s so critical to change, what is structure? And how can it help you make change successful?

Simply put, structure refers to all the tools, resources, plans, and processes that we use to guide us through change. Once we clearly identify where we are and where we want to be, structure is what allows us to move, step by step, from here to there. Structure keeps us on track.

Here is a simple example.

Suppose you decide to start running in order to improve your health. Your goal is to be able to run 5 miles at a moderate pace without stopping. Structure for making this change might include: buying yourself a pair of running shoes; developing a training plan; enlisting a buddy to run with you; buying a big dog that needs lots of exercise; or registering for a community race three months away.

Structure is equally important when it comes to change within the workplace, whether the focus is individual professional development or an organization-wide effort. Say you’re a team leader who wants to increase your skill in having effective conversations with your team members so that together you are able to produce better results. You know that you need to build your capacity to make clear requests and provide immediate, concrete feedback. But how?

Several structural supports could help you build your capacity to change the way you talk with your team members. Some examples include: a class on how to give effective feedback; a coach that provides skill-building exercises and ongoing feedback; a worksheet you use to prepare for every staff meeting that helps you identify the specific requests you want to make; or meeting agendas revised to include structured time for reviewing action requests and giving feedback. None of these things by itself will increase your skill level – for that you need to engage in regular practice. But each of them will create a structure that will help you remember and make time for that practice.

Like any of the other three elements of successful change, structure can become a source of breakdown when it is missing. Individuals and organizations can get bogged down in change because how to take the next step is not clear, or they have not built the structural support necessary to stay on track. Too often we decide to make a change, gather all of our enthusiasm and commitment, set an ambitious goal, and then five months later wonder what happened. What’s missing in these situations is structure.

Action Steps: Building Structure for Change

  1. Make a plan. It should include the overall goal and specific desired outcomes of the change, the process and/or steps you’ll follow to achieve the change, measures of success, and important milestones. Make it useful, but keep it simple.
  2. Create the tools and resources you need. For example, if your goal is to run team meetings more effectively, a structural tool might be a timed meeting agenda. If you want to reduce your stress level at work, you might develop a practice of taking regular, brief breaks throughout the day and use a timer to remind you to take them.
  3. Build in check points. This can be as simple as talking regularly with a friend or mentor about an individual change, or holding team discussions about how things are going. What’s important is creating a structure for regular reflection and evaluation. Many of my coaching clients have said that the simple fact that I arrive on a regular basis to meet with them helps to keep them on track with the changes they’re making.
  4. For larger organizational change, create structure for meaningful communication. It should be easy for people at all levels to get important information and provide feedback about how things are going. Specific tools could include hosting regular “change discussions” between senior management and all employees; including the planned change as a regular item on all meeting agendas; distributing a change newsletter; using technology to share information and respond to concerns and questions. Make sure that at least some of the systems you use allow for face-to-face conversation between people.
  5. Clarify roles and decision making authority. Organizational change often gets bogged down because there’s no decision making structure in place to move things forward, or because people don’t understand what they’re expected to do.

How have you structured support to help you and/or your team make an important change?

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