Change Management: The Performance Dip Myth

By Emerson CEO, Trish Emerson

The first myth: that there has to be a drop in performance after a change event. There doesn’t. And there shouldn’t. The fact that we expect one creates a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Remember the four-minute mile? It was assumed to be an absolute limitation of human performance until Roger Bannister broke it. He broke it because he did the hard work of preparation, and because he believed he could. And after he believed, other elite runners followed. Roger Bannister had taken the teeth out of 4:00.

Setting the expectation that there will be a drop in performance is giving your power away, just as those runners used to. It’s creating a haven for sloppy change interventions. Drops in performance don’t have to happen. They happen when we have not:

Clearly defined the performance required after the event. In other words, we have not described the specific actions each person must perform differently on Monday morning. Mapped the before and after, from each individual’s point of view. For example, where are the resources people used to depend on? What new resources are in their places? Let people practice the skills needed for these new actions. We haven’t let them try, fail, use the new tools and resources, and find a way to succeed. Convinced our people that they need to perform these new actions – that the change is vital to the organization and there’s nowhere to go but forward. Demonstrated success, so they won’t be afraid to go “all in.”

Anything new here? Nope. But here’s the issue: we have spent our days believing in the performance drop, and working to minimize it. What if our change planning made the drop unacceptable? What if the metrics we talk about, but never measure, included an immediate timeframe to adoption: start-to-success within three months?

These steps take significant effort and attention to detail. They require a pitbull’s commitment. I suspect we’re afraid to step up to the task. And we’re afraid to demand the same of the sponsor whose neck is on the line for delivery.

We’re afraid because we’re looking down. We expect hard times, lower performance, and lots of confusion and adjustment after the change. So our sponsors and our people hesitate.

What if, instead of asking them to weather the dip, we ask them to move upward and only upward? What if we tell them that, after all that ground work (in the bullets above), we’ll be stepping UP, not down? When an executive has gone to the board for a transformational change, make sure they know how to lead the team in this way. Their careers are in the balance. Give them the option to support you in doing the right work so your organization steps up — only up — to new levels of success.

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