Five Steps to Create Sustainable Change

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Scott Neil-Photo Scott Neil, PhD October 28, 2015

Leaders in every industry are constantly facing important decisions when implementing change. However, many leaders’ attempts to implement change either fall short of the intended goal or only demonstrate flashes of short-lived success. A strategic approach is needed to implementing change. Here are five steps to ensure change happens and leads to sustainable practice.


Looking to implement a change? Have you conducted a needs assessment to ensure the change you want to implement is targeted toward what will make the organization better based on facts? Many leaders begin to implement change initiatives based on hunches or their perception of what they think should be changed without ever speaking to anyone who is going to be impacted by the change. Be sure to conduct a root cause analysis. Getting to the root causes can help to uncover any past success or failures the team has experienced when attempting to reach a goal. This will provide important data to help a leader build off of the strengths that already exist within the organization and learn to avoid the mistakes of the past. Beware…the root cause holding you back from success could point to you as a leader. Don’t get defensive. Stay open to the feedback and make a concerted effort to change your ways based on the data. Leaders who model change will get others to change much sooner.


Creating a plan about how the change will be implemented and sharing it with all the stakeholders who are impacted by the change is critical to ensuring success toward reaching goals. Don’t shoot for the stars with your opening goal. Think smaller, incremental goals that are measured in weeks not months or years. Data is your friend here. Find ways to provide data to demonstrate progress early on to build momentum and achieve a series of quick wins with the team. This will build the self and collective efficacy of the people involved in the change and fosters a belief in their ability to achieve a task or goal where success was not previously accomplished before.


Once you have a plan it has to be implemented. This takes a concerted effort of a leader who constantly communicates the status of the plan with all impacted stakeholders in a proactive manner. Work together with your team to find out what the potential obstacles are and develop a strategy of how to overcome them. Identifying obstacles before they happen keeps people from losing their faith as the first sign of trouble. Make sure everyone is clear as to what their role is within the plan and clearly identify what success looks like along the way for each stakeholder group. Leading indicators will help to provide a target for people to work toward. Lagging indicators will provide in the moment opportunities to make mid-course adjustments based on the implementation of the plan.


Leaders often offer quantitative examples when asked about how they will measure the incremental success of a change effort. Reviewing quantitative data is important. It’s necessary to know if you are moving the needle toward your goal. However, qualitative data are just as important. Leaders must provide ongoing measures of the stakeholder climate through surveys, focus groups, etc. These data allow you as a leader to check the “temperature” of the climate during the change effort and provide targeted support where it is needed the most. It also let’s you know what is working best for each stakeholder group. This continues to build momentum throughout the change effort, not just in the initial stages.


Reflecting is often neglected due to time constraints. It is tough to make a change sustainable without taking time for deep reflection of practice. The best time for this is following a major milestone. There should be data to analyze for celebrations of accomplishments and to drive the conversation about what adjustments must be made based on the lessons learned from the immediate past.

Change requires focused management in order to be sustainable. Leaders who get results over long stretches of time know this. Work with your team to devise a plan on how you can make sure your next change is a lasting one. Check out our Framework for Sustained Change for a set of guiding questions to help your team through the change process.

Scott Neil-PhotoScott is a proven school and district leader with 23 years of experience. He has led the turnaround of five different urban schools in Florida transforming their cultures into high functioning systems that produced record breaking results in student achievement and teacher performance. Scott is available to consult with schools, districts, and organizations to create a focused strategy that will lead to improved results, increased engagement, and overall results. He can be contacted at


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