Are You Ready For A Breakthrough?

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Whether it’s an individual starting an exercise program to get heart-healthy after a bad cholesterol test. Or a health care organization investing in integrative care to decrease chronic pain. Or even a business improving employee retention through a wellness program. All of these situations require making breakthrough change.

When you start trying to lead breakthrough change, the odds may be against you.

Organizations are usually built for consistency, reliability, predictability and risk minimization – breakthrough change is the opposite of all that. So you need to challenge conventional systems, processes and culture.

It’s no wonder so many attempts at breakthrough change fail; it’s not the idea that is wrong, it’s that the implementation was ineffective.

“Most companies are focused on making incremental improvements to improve the quality of their service, reduce costs and reinvest in future opportunities.

But in addition to incremental improvements that must be relentless, there are occasionally opportunities for breakthrough change that are disruptive to the company and the people in the company and the marketplace. They change the future trajectory of things to create breakout success or a reduction in costs from the implementation of a new way of doing business or new technology or a new way of thinking.

It’s exactly the disruption within the company that often becomes the most difficult piece of the process to manage.”  – David Pottruck. [1]

Making small changes can be challenging; achieving breakthroughs are even more so, but there are factors that can lead to success.

Three key elements are essential for breakthrough change to take hold:
You have to have the will to improve, you have to have ideas about alternatives to the status quo, and then you have to make it real — execution.

Will to change to a new system. This can take longer than you’d think because it’s often not just the will of one person, but harnessing the buy-in and energy of a series of stakeholders at all levels that can either help or prevent the change from occurring.

“Developing will is about engaging all the parties who will be affected by the change,” said Sandi Gordon, Senior Program Manager at Samueli Institute. She encourages using two-way communication to talk with and especially LISTEN to the participants’ interests, concerns, needs, and motivations.

Being sensitive to the motivations of different stakeholders or team members is essential to ensuring each person is heard and getting to the core of their hesitancy to change. Whether it’s a lack of vision, skills, incentives, resources, or action plan, missing even one of these can cause confusion, anxiety, delays, frustration or false starts.[2]

“Will is the hardest thing. Getting the buy-in that we as an organization are investing in this effort even when it doesn’t seem to be working right away can take work,” said Bonnie Sakallaris, Vice President of Optimal Healing Environments. The will for major change can take making a few small changes, says Sakallaris, and by getting some early wins, the mood of an organization can shift towards being supportive of change.

Once the will has been established, it’s important to have clear ideas on which to base the design of this new system and then begin to execute without delay. “Do it by Tuesday” is a common tenet running through the mind of those experienced in change.

“When you want to start a new workout regime, you need a plan. When will you exercise? What will you do? How will this affect your day? If going to the gym, how will you get there? Do you have a workout buddy or trainer to support you? Once you have thought that through, be ready to start it now. Don’t wait until Monday!” explains Gordon to show how making change requires the will, ideas and a clear plan for execution.

Samueli Institute facilitates team cohesion and breakthrough change in much of its consulting work including the Chronic Pain Breakthrough CollaborativeHospice and Palliative Care Breakthrough Collaborative, and community change through the Well Community Project. These efforts allow for cross-learning, networking, rapid change, and improvements to the bottom line.


[1] Stacking the Deck: How to Lead Breakthrough Change Against Any Odds, David Pottruck

[2] Ambrose, D. (1987). Managing Complex Change. Pittsburgh, Pa.: The Enterprise Group, Ltd.