Thresholds: Why Leaders Shouldn’t Give Up on a Good Idea Too Soon

Enough is enough! Ever felt like giving up? We all have felt that way at some time. It can be discouraging to keep working at something and not see results. Promises that things will get better in the future don’t help much in the present. There are many endeavors that have thresholds that must be reached before any results can be seen. Examples may include: retirement planning, fitness regimens, staff and leadership development, playing the violin, etc. The day-to-day effort can seem tedious and frustrating until one day you realize, “Wow, I have a bunch of money in the bank for retirement.” Or, “I can actually make music on my violin.” Sometimes leadership training, team building, marketing a new product, and organization development can seem a lot like this. Malcolm Gladwell discusses this phenomenon in his popular book, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. There are also thresholds on the way down. That is, little by little, things keep getting worse until, “boom,” it seems that everything falls apart at once.

By now, we have all heard of the “boiled frog” phenomenon. Apparently, if you drop a frog into a pan of boiling water (Who would do such a thing?), it will hop right out, presumably as most living creatures would do. On the other hand, if you put the frog into a pan of cold water then gradually turn the heat up, it will remain in the water until it is cooked to a crisp (Somebody must have actually done this.). Illnesses, plaque build-up, credit card debt, excess weight and so on are examples of phenomena that “creep up” on us but seem to occur suddenly. In international disputes (wars), politicians talk about “mission creep.”

Epidemiologists have been studying this for a long time. What starts as a few cases of a contagious disease may spread very slowly for a long time until they reach a certain threshold, then there is a serious, rapid spread that creates an epidemic that seems to happen overnight. Serious mathematicians have studied these phenomena for a long time. The math is referred to as game theory. If you saw a movie called A Beautiful Mind, about John Nash, you were introduced to game theory. Originally, game theory was used to schedule bombing runs during the war and predict the seriousness of epidemics. It is the math of large systems. The same principles apply to organizations and can help predict what will happen when you try to introduce a change into the system. As a company tries to implement a new team process, there are a number of predictable steps that will be taken. They plan the program, create a vision, announce the program, conduct training, set up teams, etc., etc. The methodology for creating changes in an leadership study workplace facts trainingorganization is not really that mysterious.

What often happens though, is at some point in the process, the leaders become impatient. They see no visible result. They keep spending money and nothing is happening. They understandably worry that they are “pouring money down a rat hole.” Their change agents (facilitators, consultants, change managers, etc.) tell them, “Change takes time.” But, often the leaders have put people into the change management roles who have little organizational credibility. They are supervisors who were not producing or they are college fresh-outs with a lot of enthusiasm but little experience.

So, why listen to them? The leaders feel a responsibility to their executives, their stockholders or their board. They need to defend the last quarter’s results. If they can’t point to a reasonable return on investment, they are in trouble. They may think, “’Change takes time,’ is just an excuse for messing up the process. The change agents are just making a desperate attempt to prolong the agony of a failed process.” Sadly, sometimes this is true. There are certainly enough of those cases to make the leaders very wary of continuing a program that is not showing results. The trick, of course, is to have clear, agreed upon milestones along the way. If you are doing most of the right things, you can develop a sort of check-list . At the risk of oversimplifying, such a check-list might look a little like this:

• Identified business need.
• Gain concurrence of leadership.
• Developed organizational vision.
• Created implementation plan.
• Participants assigned to teams.
• Training complete.
• Changes implemented.
• Business need evaluated.
• Take two aspirin.
• Repeat as needed.
• Call me in the morning.

This is, of course, a whole lot more complicated than I am making it sound. Each of these steps (except “take two aspirins and call me in the morning”) require a lot of thought, energy, and time. Every organization will have its own specific requirements and the milestones will look different. But, it is important to develop such a plan and to evaluate your progress against it. There will always be unanticipated events, emergencies, and detours. But, there is enough knowledge in the marketplace to create a high-confidence plan that can be a guide to your change process.

It is also important to know that “a long time” does not mean forever. In an organization of 100 or 200 people, a major culture change process should start producing results in a year or two. Large organizations require much longer time frames and are far less predictable. Make sure that the people managing the change process are very capable. Don’t leave this important work to inexperienced or expendable employees. Stay vigilant. While a certain amount of complaining and such is normal, a lot of resistance may mean that there is something wrong with the process. Don’t be afraid to stop and make adjustments if they appear warranted.

If you get good advice, follow the advice, and sustain the effort for a long enough period of time, the chance of meeting your organization’s goals is pretty good. Most of these efforts fail, not because the company was trying to do the wrong thing, but because leadership didn’t have the patience to see it through. Leadership training should be a key element of any change process and it should also be one vehicle for making the point that change doesn’t happen overnight or without a lot of energy and persistence. So, persevere! A particularly apt definition of this word is, “per•se•vere vi to persist steadily in an action or belief, usually over a long period and especially despite problems or difficulties ”

[1] Stinnett, William. How to Fix the System! “The Importance of Systems Thinking in Leadership Training.” October 2010.

[2] Encarta® World English Dictionary © 1999 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved. Developed for Microsoft by Bloomsbury Publishing Plc.

Learn more about L.E.T.