Sustainable Change – How to Make Change Stick

effective change - making change stick

I have been thinking a lot lately about how to deliver effective change. The beginning of a new year is often seen as a good time to think about what we have achieved, what we haven’t and what we would like to change and improve, but that’s not the only reason. Effective change is a persistent issue in innovation programmes and critical to value delivery. It is ongoing change in what we do, or who does what, or how we do what we do, that ultimately delivers value.  Also, I am currently working on developing material to support IT professionals to improve their influencing skills1. As I am working on the material the question which is most often front of my mind is how can I ensure that people who invest in the programme will get the changes that they want and need to stick?

Answering this question always seems to start by acknowledging that while knowledge is critical to people’s ability to change, it’s not enough. If knowledge was enough then I, and I suspect many others, would be slim and gorgeous. I’m not and it’s not because I don’t know what to do, I do, it’s because knowing isn’t enough to get it done. As Tony Robbins says it’s not knowing what to do that counts, but doing what you know. We all have this knowing-doing gap somewhere in our lives and the reality is that if we want to create the change we not only need to impart knowledge we also need to support people to apply that knowledge.

Knowledge vs Skill

Of course the ability to apply knowledge, doing what you know, requires more than simply the knowledge itself, it also requires skill. Anyone who has had the privilege of teaching a teenager to drive understands the difference between knowledge and skill. Before a teenager is allowed to get behind the wheel of a car they have to demonstrate that they know all the road rules and the basics of how to drive. Despite this, that first drive is a terrifying experience as they discover that it’s one thing to know what to do and an entirely different thing to be able to do it.

In the end turning knowledge into skill comes down to some form of practice or experience. There are many different ways to gain experience. Some alternatives are that you can simply perform the task repeatedly and see how you go, you can formally practice in a safe environment (I remember the years of rugby practice every Tuesday and Thursday), you can visualize performance or even create a game that allows you to mimic the skills.

Effective change requires deliberate practice

One of the most powerful ideas in gaining skills and improving performance is deliberate practice.  James Clear defines deliberate practice as “a special type of practice that is purposeful and systematic. While regular practice might include mindless repetitions, deliberate practice requires focused attention and is conducted with the specific goal of improving performance.”  So if you are looking to create real change, build new skills or improve existing skills then setting up a process that encourages or allows deliberate practice is critical.

Deliberate practice requires mindfulness, feedback on performance and an intent to improve.  These are also core characteristics in the pursuit of mastery, which research shows is one of three important elements contributing to intrinsic motivation (the other two are autonomy and purpose, which I’ll get to soon).

This is all well and good but……..

I don’t know about you, but when I consider the notion of deliberate practice two competing thoughts arise in my mind.  The first is acknowledgement that yes, I get it, deliberate practice is important to building and improving skills and then right alongside it is the thought yeah, but this all sounds like hard work. Am I really up for it? Will it all be worth it? These thoughts spring from the recognition of a lifetime of good intentions unfulfilled (and perhaps a little cynicism). New Year resolutions are the classic. We start the year with good intentions to improve our lot, we know what to do, we set out the plan and we implement it, for a week or two.  Maybe even a month or more and then we slide back. The effort is not sustained. There are likely to be many reasons (or excuses) for this, but at some level it comes back to a “decision” that the outcome is not worth the effort. Or to put it another way it simply didn’t matter enough to be able to sustain the effort to build the skills and create the outcome.

Make it personal

Which brings me to the third requirement for sustained change, it has to be personal!! Being personal has two parts to it. Firstly, it has to really matter to you so you will sustain the effort and secondly, you have to do it your way.

Creating long term sustainable change is hard work. If it wasn’t then we would have already done it. Because it’s hard work we need a really powerful reason to ensure we follow through and sustain the effort required. Many of our change efforts fail because we don’t have a strong enough why. Too often we’re interested in change, but we are not committed. Reasons for change come in two forms – eliminating a negative and creating something awesome. Eliminating a negative is great for creating urgency needed to start now, but once the “danger” has passed it can be difficult to sustain. The positive aspiration on the other hand builds momentum and sustains motivation over a long period of time, but lacks the urgency required to get started today. If at all possible create both reasons thus providing urgency to get started and long term aspiration to sustain momentum. This aspect of being personal fulfills the second aspect of intrinsic motivation, purpose, a reason to change and way of contributing to something larger than the change itself.

One size does NOT fit all

The second part of personal is that change cannot be delivered by route or as a one size fits all recipe. It has to be specific to the person, their skills, their preferences, their lifestyle and beliefs.  Yes there is a general science or knowledge and yes there is the need to build specific skills, but all that’s needs to be executed by a person. This is most easily observed in sports. For example Jonah Lomu and Jeff Wilson are both great All Blacks, they both have in depth knowledge of rugby rules and tactics, they both invested heavily in building the needed skills yet they played the game differently and in a way that suited their skills and preferences.

In a more formal sense, the authors of Change Anything say that when it comes to creating real personal change you have to be the scientist and the subject so that you can discover the most important thing, how to change you. In discovering how to change you and doing it your way you activate the third aspect of intrinsic motivation, autonomy which essentially says that people perform their best when they have the freedom to choose how to create a change or to get a task done.

So, if you want to enhance your chance of success in creating real change you need three things – knowledge, skill and the desire to change needs to be personal. When you are looking to create change either personally or within your organisation do you seek to pull all three of these levers?  Further, do you pull them in a way that builds intrinsic motivation through autonomy, mastery and purpose?


1 I’m working on this because I believe that for IT professionals to be successful in delivering value from IT requires not only great technical expertise but also great influencing skills. Most It professionals have fantastic technical skills, after all that’s why we were employed and that’s where we have invested. Influencing skills however are less common but equally important. The good news is that influencing skills can be built like any expertise, it just requires an investment of time and effort and if we invest in building this second expertise then not only will we have a bigger impact for our organisations but we will most likely get to work with great technology and make the contribution we want to make.

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Owen McCall

Owen McCall

It seems that everyone these days believes in the power of technology to transform. Believing in the power of IT to transform is one thing, actually making it happen however, is an entirely different matter. The road to fulfilling IT’s potential to transform our organisations is more often a road to failure than it is a road to success. Just look at the statistics. Most pundits agree that 70+% of IT enabled change programmes fail. As a lover of technology and a believer in technology’s potential to transform, Owen McCall finds statistics like this very frustrating. As a result he now dedicates his time to supporting organisations to implement better ways to deliver change and to fulfil on technology's transformative power. Owen is a qualified accountant and was previously a partner in Deloitte Consulting where for several years he led Deloitte’s Australasian outsourcing business before returning to New Zealand to take up the position of CIO of The Warehouse Group. In addition to running his practice Owen is a regular blogger and contributor to CIO and iStart publications and is sought after as both an event speaker and judge of industry awards including CIO 100 and the NZ Hi Tech Awards. For more information visit