Why incremental change may not be enough

dominoConfession: I’m not great at hard changes. I’m not good at making risky decisions or taking a leap of faith and expecting others to follow. I often hope that I can get away with as little change as possible.

But not long after starting at First Christian, I had to shut down a parachurch ministry. They had gone from being supported by the missions board to wanting to be managed by children’s ministry. I knew they were struggling to meet their goals, that they would require a lot of time, and some leaders had been in the middle of some fierce church conflicts (as was made clear by a surreal meeting with them and another pastor).

It took about 3 seconds to know that I didn’t want to try and salvage this program. It took me two weeks to convince myself to officially pull the plug. I got some awkward blowback, but it died down quickly enough. I rarely think about it, it’s pretty firmly in the past.

I wish I could say that I typically lead change with such conviction, but that’s not the case. It’s usually pretty difficult for me to step out and demand a shift in direction.

After all, change = stress, right? Absolutely. Change needs to be handled wisely and with patience, right? Usually.


When you’re embarking on a path of change, look at your situation with clear eyes (and perhaps with the input of others), while asking¬†how far should change go? Equally important is the question,¬†how fast can I get there without risking the whole process?

The truth is that there is indeed danger in changing too much, too quickly or with too little groundwork. But equally dangerous is the temptation to soften the blow of change. It’s tempting to talk yourself in to making only incremental changes in hopes that they will do the trick (they rarely do), or to be so deliberate that the change never gets accomplished. At the time, holding back on major change can seem wise because you’re avoiding the stress that they create.

But in the end, you’re probably not avoiding the stress, only delaying it. If there’s an underlying issue that’s holding you back, half-measures won’t fix things 99% of the time. And by the time you get down to dealing with those issues, they’ll have taken deeper root and will be harder to fix.

So, when more than incremental change is needed, don’t ask how little difficulty you can get away with, ask how fast you can reasonably plow through it all. Go as deep as you need to in order to honestly deal with the root issue. Just like yanking off a band-aid, it will will hurt more for a few seconds, but then it will be done, and you can move forward.

What about you? What’s your advice for leading change?

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