people, girls, women-2557396.jpg

Change Cycles for Progress and Accountability

We tackle many kinds of change projects at Outside Angle—everything from helping new start-ups grow to helping organizations pivot in the face of a shifting landscape to supporting visionary leaders in realizing their big ideas. Across all project types and sizes, we continue to find value in organizing complex work into purposeful change cycles. These cycles establish set periods of time for taking action, punctuated by intentional moments for reflection and planning.

Cycles give change efforts the structure and rhythm they need to sustain momentum over time. They create the start and end points needed to sustain urgency, and they provide essential pause points for reflection and learning. Without such a cadence, projects lose steam and become a blob of ongoing “work.” Urgency is lost and one day turns into the next. After all, why make that big decision today?

Change cycles help teams create progress and accountability. Here, we share some of the benefits we have observed of organizing change processes in cycles, as well as the features we have incorporated into the change cycles we design and manage.

Features of an Effective Change Cycle

  • A change cycle has a clear start and end point. Cycles may be as short as 4-6 weeks long, or as long as six months. Either way, a cycle is a defined interval of time.
  • During each cycle there is a shared commitment to a specific set of priorities, activities, and deliverables. Typically there are multiple iterations on these deliverables during the cycle. Sometimes the cycles themselves align to multiple iterations of a longer term product.
  • There is always a set time to come back together and regroup as a team. Each cycle culminates in a major event that is an opportunity to make decisions that complete one cycle and set up the next one for success. This event may be a leadership off-site or all-staff retreat. (More on this idea of making retreats part of a connected process here.)
  • Between cycles, time is made to reconnect and rebuild relationships, celebrate successes, and consolidate learning to establish shared context for the next change cycle to come.

Change Cycle Variations

With these common features, we’ve learned that change cycles have utility across several different types of work. Cycles can take on different forms based on the nature of the work. At Outside Angle, we leverage cycles to create progress and accountability in at least three ways: design and implementation, team alignment and performance, and leadership transitions.

  • Design and implementation cycles work well in 4-6 week intervals. When translating a big, nebulous idea into a more concrete design or honing a strategic vision, for example, it’s critical that the team comes back together to keep various strands in sync, iterate on cross-functional deliverables together, and make timely decisions.
  • Team alignment and performance cycles are typically six months long. This timeline is long enough for the entire organization to make meaningful progress, but short enough that ongoing course correction is possible and likely to be well-received as a natural part of the process.
  • Leadership transitions are times to push hard and accelerate the process. Here, we shorten the cycle to 30 day intervals knowing that a leader’s first 90 days are critical to build momentum and establish their long term trajectory.

These different cycle types are complementary, and can fit together. For example, in some client engagements we run a six-month team performance cycle at the same time we are facilitating three shorter design cycles with an organization.

Benefits of Managing Change with this Cyclical Approach

Think about the difference between being in school and working full time. The school experience has periods of action (semesters), culminating in intense deliverables (finals), followed by periods of rest and regrouping (seasonal breaks). In contrast, work can feel like an endless slog. There’s rarely the same level of structure to drive peak performance, or the needed opportunities to pause and prepare—or just chill out and blow off steam.

Change cycles like the ones we advocate certainly don’t make work feel like school, but they do incorporate features that help boost morale, performance, and accountability.

Here’s a list of the many benefits we’ve observed from implementing change cycles.

  • Structure. Cycles give ambiguous projects needed structure. They create clear deadlines and points for decision-making.
  • Focus. With defined cycles, teams can more easily agree on what to prioritize, and stick with these commitments until the cycle concludes and it’s time to reassess. Having a clear end point in sight strengthens a team’s ability to stay focused and avoid distractions.
  • Motivation. When the finish line is abstract and far away it’s hard to sustain effort. Short bursts with clear finish lines sustain urgency and inspire action knowing there will soon be a chance to pause and regroup.
  • Accountability. Change cycle intervals ensure a healthy level of accountability. Because there are clear endpoints and shared priorities it’s easier to ensure that team members are doing their part or to isolate where things are breaking down.
  • Morale. Cycles boost morale and increase the fun factor. It’s demoralizing for teams when nothing ever gets finished. Instead, these cycles create shared wins that elevate team pride and engagement.

Zooming out, change cycles create a vision for process: a shared story of how change will unfold around which team members can align their work. Change is messy. While leaders can’t eliminate the messiness, creating a clear vision for process, in the form of change cycles, helps to organize it in a positive way.

Building a Change Savvy Culture

Beyond these specific benefits, organizing the work in this way helps build capacity for change into the DNA of an organization. Change management isn’t something that the highest performing organizations tack on the side. Change capacity has to be built into the heart of an organization’s systems and culture. Change cycles like these do exactly that, a benefit greater than any of the single benefits identified above.

In an increasingly complex and ambiguous world, every organization must approach change and evolution as something to lean into, not something to resist. Cycles facilitate team learning and alignment. Learning leads to growth. Growth gives your team an edge.

At any one time, multiple cycles can run concurrently at many different levels of the organization and for different purposes. Together, they will help create a positive and productive culture full of people who are comfortable with change and confident navigating anything that comes their way.

An Effective Process for Progress and Accountability

In summary, change cycles are an essential process tool that change leaders can use to manage complex organizational change. Change projects don’t work well when they’re an unstructured ongoing blob. Instead, they benefit from being organized in cycles with intense periods of action followed by brief intervals for reflection and adjustment.

As you prepare to implement change cycles, keep in mind that these cycles can be as short as four weeks or as long as six months depending on the context. All cycles should have clear start and end points, and typically culminate in a “retreat” or “deep dive day” to demarcate where one cycle ends and the next begins, not to mention to give the team space to come together, learn, make decisions, and regroup. The specific features of a change cycle can be tailored to the type of project. We’ve developed and applied variations for design and implementation, team alignment and performance, and leadership transitions, among other purposes.

There are many specific benefits to this approach, including improved structure, focus, motivation, accountability, and morale. Most important of all, together these benefits add up to creating a change-savvy culture designed to take your organization to the next stage of growth and impact.