I once found myself walking down a long hallway reflecting on a question that had just popped into my head: “How have I been successful at this in the past?”
I had taken a role on a team charged with implementing a major internal transformation and the 'dream job' wasn’t turning out as I had envisioned. Actually, the situation felt like it was pretty close to crossing the line between challenging-but-doable and fiasco. Prior to this moment of walking reflection, I had the catchphrase from the show Arrested Development on a continuous loop in my head: “I’ve made a HUGE mistake.”
Perhaps my subconscious recognized that refrain wasn’t helping matters.
Nearly as quickly as the question came into my mind — “How have I been successful at this in the past?” — the answered followed. Patient persistence.
I had been involved in challenging organizational change and implementation initiatives before. Given assignments that no one wanted, or believed could be done, and made things happen. How? Patient persistence.
I think we all have a special mix of skills, talents and qualities that help us to overcome obstacles and achieve our goals. Patient persistence may not be the right mix for everyone. However, when you delve into the nature of these qualities and how they influence our outlook and actions, as I do below, you may come to agree that they are particularly well-suited to support us through the ups and downs experienced in implementation.
Why patience and persistence are especially helpful for implementers.
My experience with implementation is this: Achieving the aims and outcomes of most change efforts takes a lot longer than most people expect. Solidifying and truly integrating new ways of doing, behaving and thinking in a team, department or organization is a long-term play. Often longer than the average organizational attention span. Short-term wins are, of course, essential, but no more so than not declaring victory, or defeat, too soon.
As it turns out, the qualities of patience and persistence are particularly useful in situations where challenges are drawn-out and effort is required for the long haul.
The Yin of Patience
There are a variety of perspectives on patience that are relevant to the task of implementation. Patience has been noted for its role in countering temporal bias (our tendency to prefer immediate awards to future payoffs, even when the immediate rewards may be smaller). It’s also been found to increase the general courtesy and sensitivity we show towards others (Comer and Sekerka, 2014).
However, one aspect of patience noted in the work of Debra Comer and Leslie Sekerka strikes me as tailor made for implementers. It's this: “Patient individuals appreciate that their time is no more valuable than anyone else’s” ( 2014).
It is a rare treat to implement something in an organization when nothing else is going on. More often, there are a suite of other projects, practices, policies and systems being rolled out at the same time or in near succession, to the same groups of end users, who also have to maintain their day-to-day job responsibilities. When implementing in a crowded change space, a patient implementer is more likely to approach the situation with empathy and a willingness to think creatively about sequencing, pacing or integration with other efforts, rather than taking a competitive stance demanding a priority position at all costs. Patience provides the pause from which innovative ideas spring. Patience also cultivates the environment in which relationships are built, which may be even more essential than novel ideas. Relationships can make or break a sustained change or implementation effort.
Can patience be taken too far? You bet. You can lose a lot of ground waiting for perfect timing or for others to act first. I advocate for an “on your toes” rather than an “on your heels” patience, to avoid complacency or falling prey to changing organizational whims or distractions.
This is also why it's critical to have the ‘yang’ quality of persistence to counterbalance the ‘yin’ of patience.
The Yang of Persistence
The Oxford dictionary defines persistence as: “Firm or obstinate continuance in a course of action in spite of difficulty or opposition.” Persistence is our ability to just keep at it. Persistence demands, as noted in the definition, a certain degree of obstinance or stubbornness on the part of the implementer. As such, persistence is the quality that calls the bluff of those who are biding their time waiting for you to quit. It is one of the factors that supports achievement.
Persistence without limits, however, can lead us to cross the line between assertiveness and aggression, which can backfire in implementation efforts that involve winning people over — which is pretty much all of them. Unchecked persistence can also lead to overcommitment. Sometimes, the right answer is to stop. We are better positioned to recognize this when we balance out the ‘full steam ahead’ of persistence, with the ‘pause’ offered by patience. Taken together these qualities can help us maintain a realistic picture of our effort and identify optimal next steps.
Developing Patience & Persistence
The qualities of patience and persistence come more naturally to some of us than others. Researchers who study the interplay of patience and persistence with motivation and performance note that it is possible to develop or strengthen these qualities. They also call out that these are finite resources. As noted by one team of researchers: “The challenge faced by individuals in the workplace is less about why they should persist but how to create and maintain the energy to persist” (Cheng and Wang, 2014). It’s important to take steps to replenish your stores.
A few ideas on how to do this from the research:
- “Building patience is recognizing that even though it may not be possible to control every (or, sometimes, even any) aspect of a particular situation, it is possible to be in command of one’s perceptions of and reactions to circumstances through self-regulation” (Comer and Sekera, 2014). An example of self-regulation is reframing or reassessing tedious or trying assignments as opportunities for achievement (Comer and Sekera, 2014).
- Adam Grant and colleagues found that direct interaction with those who benefit from a task, even if brief, can significantly impact the persistence of those who undertake the task as well as job performance (2006). If you don’t do so already, ensure your implementation or project team has opportunities to interact with end-users or customers — it can be a shot in the arm.
- In a study on the links between motivation, humor, and persistence, David Cheng and Lu Wang found that humor can enhance persistence because it provides us with a “psychological vacation”. Essentially, humor creates a healthy space between us and our work tasks. Recognizing humor is relative, the bigger picture is to ensure you engage in activities that allow you to experience a sense of play and amusement. This is a particularly important reminder for the challenging periods that are part of any implementation. A little levity can go a long way.
- Finally, basic aspects of self-care, such as sleep, exercise and simply taking real breaks can help top up stores of patience and persistence. (My opinion is that they also make life in general a bit more enjoyable!)
What helps you overcome challenges?
As I mentioned earlier, I’ve figured out that patient persistence is my 'secret sauce'. In researching these qualities, I’ve found some evidence that they are particularly beneficial to those who undertake long-term, boring but important tasks such as those involved in many implementations. However, a different combination of qualities may be core to your success. If so, I hope you'll share them in the comments section below. We’ll all benefit from your contributions.
Cheng, David, and Lu Wang. "Examining the Energizing Effects of Humor: The Influence of Humor on Persistence Behavior." J Bus Psychol Journal of Business and Psychology 30.4 (2014): 759-72. Web. See here.
Comer, Debra R., and Leslie E. Sekerka. "Taking Time for Patience in Organizations." Journal of Management Development 33.1 (2014): 6-23. Web. See here.
Grant, Adam M., Elizabeth M. Campbell, Grace Chen, Keenan Cottone, David Lapedis, and Karen Lee. "Impact and the Art of Motivation Maintenance: The Effects of Contact with Beneficiaries on Persistence Behavior." Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 103.1 (2007): 53-67. Web. See here.
Gollwitzer, Peter M., and Paschal Sheeran. "Implementation Intentions and Goal Achievement: A Meta‐analysis of Effects and Processes." Advances in Experimental Social Psychology Advances in Experimental Social Psychology Volume 38 (2006): 69-119. Web. See here.