Organizational Change – Part 3: Sisyphus and Successful Execution

This post is Part 3 of a 4 part series looking at strategies and tactics for creating change in organizations! If you like it, consider signing up at the bottom of the page for email alerts of new posts.

Check here for Part 1: Viral Ideas and Part 2: Changing organizations is like moving a memory foam mattress.

Sisyphus is a figure in Greek mythology known for angering Zeus and being condemned to forever roll a boulder up a hill in Hades. He’s also a useful character when it comes to thinking about using our time effectively. I have seen many leaders of organizations recreate their own personal Sisyphean reality by failing to focus their attention.

When someone is seeking to create organizational change, they’re trying to create a new habit within an organization. As we saw earlier in Part 1 of this series, ideas and change spread virally. If those ideas fail to reach a critical threshold, or lack virality and reinforcement, they will slowly fade from the minds within that organization. Once a habit is established, however, it can become self-reinforcing if designed correctly.

As an example, recently after I started at One Medical, one of my fellow engineering directors added a slide to our bi-weekly team check-ins, asking the team to report on the outcome of any continuous improvement effort or learning from the past two weeks. For the first several months, some teams would forget this slide, but each time, he would gently remind them to fill it out in the future. Over time, more and more teams began to fill out the slide and share their learnings with other teams. Once this became a habit, the slides themselves reinforced the habit for the teams, and the people on those teams started to remind each other to fill out the reports as well. This director was then able to step away from reminding people, and the change lived on. 

Too frequently though, I’ve seen myself and others take on too many projects at one time. We begin by selecting a given change (i.e. boulder) we want to roll up the hill before us. We start pushing and making progress, seeing the boulder begin to move and change begin to happen. As we get farther and farther up the hill, we let the next project start to take our attention. As the other project (yet another boulder) picks up attention, we run down the hill to it and begin pushing it up. But if we haven’t yet gotten the first project into some point of self-reinforcement, the original boulder will then roll back down the hill. Now, part-way up the hill with the second boulder, we’ll notice the first one plummeting down the slope and we’ll run to catch it, leaving the second on the hillside unattended.

Repeating this process day in and day out requires a huge amount of effort, but all of the boulders remain at the bottom of the hill. This is both exhausting and fruitless.

What then, is the alternative?

Many projects have various stable points along the way. A stable point here means a point at which the boulder can be safely left alone without the risk of it sliding back down the hill. It may not be at the top of the hill yet, but it will stay put for some period of time while you, the boulder pusher, are off moving other boulders.

As another example: a few years ago, I created a new leveling guide for our engineering team. It took a lot of work to research, discuss, and iterate on the guide itself. Had I stopped at any point in that initial phase of work, the project would have slowly lost momentum and slid backwards as people began to forget about our conversations and the work would have faded from my own memory as I moved on to other projects. 

In order for this project to reach a stable point, I had to both complete an initial version and find some hooks in existing processes to attach it to, so that it would be remembered in the future. To accomplish this, I aimed to finish the guide, publicize it to the engineering team, and create a set of tools which other managers could use in 1:1s and in our promotion process. By the time those tasks were done, I was reasonably confident that the tool would remain useful and in use while I focused my attention elsewhere. This wasn’t the end of the leveling guide project — I ended up coming back to it later to find a way to do annual refreshes and we have also improved its integration with our promotion process — but it turned out to be a stable point and I was able to return to the boulder later and find it mostly where I’d left it.

Learning to identify and plan around stable points is an effective way to ensure that you’re not merely pushing boulders up a hill only to have them roll back down. Keep an eye out on the projects going on around you. You can use the experiences of others to hone your instinct for identifying these points in your own projects, as well as what sort of hooks best serve to integrate your efforts into the web of memory and process in your organization. As your skills here improve, you’ll be capable of accomplishing more and more with less and less wasted energy. 

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