Setting the Right Pace for Change

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Metronome by Nigel Appleton

Setting the Right Pace during Change

In a recent post, we explored the value of go slow to go fast. This idea suggests that, if we slow down at the beginning of a change initiative to engage stakeholders, gain clarity on goal and target outcomes, and work through tough issues, we can speed through implementation. On the other hand, if we choose to go fast up front, we risk setting ourselves up for frustration and firefighting by neglecting beneficial relationships and issues.

We can choose our pace. Some changes need to move quickly, others slowly. This post covers two fundamental questions: When should we go slow? How slow should we go?

When Should We Go Slow?

Not every project or change effort requires that we go slow. What is the right pace for change?

I once saw a nonprofit organization pose this question to their staff: What color should we paint the walls? They spent countless hours debating color schemes. In the end, was that a good use of time? I don’t think so. It wasn’t relevant to their operations or strategy and it was a relatively simple issue.

In other cases, a slow starting pace is imperative. They are initiatives that:

  • Break new ground for the organization.
  • Attempt to create or implement a new technology, methodology, or strategy.
  • Directly influence the success or failure of a major strategy.
  • Affect how people do their day-to-day work or how people talk about the company and its work.

Another way to flag change initiatives that should start slow is by identifying whether the change is technical or adaptive. Technical changes are easiest to resolve since the problem statement is clear, and we know what we’re trying to achieve. There’s an expert who can easily provide a solution so we can let her run with it. Technical changes are things like upgrading a software package, installing a new furnace, and creating social media channels.

Some technical changes require a slow approach. If many will be affected by the work in significant ways—they’ll need to learn their way around a new software package, contribute to social media, or do performance reviews differently—we may need to go slow.

On the other hand, all adaptive changes require a slow start. Adaptive changes are much more difficult to resolve since the solution is not exactly clear. It will take collective learning, exploration, experimentation to find the way. There’s no one expert who can solve the problem. It must come from a group.

By going slow, we make sure we’re clear on our goals and approach. We may not find the solution in those early meetings, but we’ll get aligned around how we’re going to move forward together.

How Slow Should We Go?

Let’s be clear about what slow means. It does not mean glacial speed. If our children are growing faster than we’re making decisions, we’re going too slow. On the other hand, if we can answer these questions with a YES, we’re on track:

First Question: Is this change similar to something that has been done before, relatively simple, and low impact on operations, strategy, or people? If it’s a YES, skip the rest of the questions and go fast.

Second Question: Have we spent meaningful time with each person who will contribute to the change by completing work, making decisions, for freeing up resources (time, money, people, expertise, equipment)? If it’s a YES, we’re on our way. One more question.

Third Question: Do we have regular meetings set up with contributors and approvers to discuss work, progress, decisions, and new ideas? If it’s a YES, we’re good to go.

Planning amidst Uncertainty

The flip side of go slow to go fast is experimentation. Most of us work in rapidly evolving industries in which the context sometimes changes daily. We’re never going to get the perfect plan, the perfect design, or the perfect anything.

We’re going to shift gears during the project simply because we live in a world of uncertainty. We’re doing to try some things that don’t work and redesign. We’re going to have something come out of nowhere that forces us to rethink things.

That’s why it’s even more crucial to build relationships and goal clarity up front. With a clear goal that all agree is important and with strong relationships, we can navigate the inevitable course corrections and changes together.

For more tips on becoming an effective change leader, see this article on

For an interesting article on using the “go slow to go fast” principle on the highway, see this Slate article

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One Response to Setting the Right Pace for Change

  1. Steve Frigand August 1, 2013 at 3:40 pm #

    This is exactly the dilemma I highlighted with a group of managers yesterday.

    You have made important universal points, and expressed them in a clear way that I will share with my client. (Of course, attributing them to you via your blog.)

    Thanks so much Maya !

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