Not improving? Here’s the missing piece.

Not improving? Here’s the missing piece.

We all WANT to make changes – at work, at home, to our processes, our relationships — but actually following through is the hard part, don’t you think?


We all have ideas about how we’re going to be a better wife/husband/son/friend/boss. How we need to be more patient, a harder worker. Ask more questions, develop our direct reports.  We know we need to make improvements to systems and processes at work, but the day is so overwhelming. There are a million interruptions and a cacophony of thoughts, to-dos and action lists competing for our time and attention. As the day wears on, we often lose sight of these ways to “be better.” We don’t achieve those goals. At least, I’ve found this to be true and there’s some research behind why this may be true for you as well.


Change is difficult, and our habits of thinking and behaving have been reinforced over decades. It is very difficult to reverse the imbedded neural circuitry. Because this is true, we need motivation to really stick with something. There are two improvement models that tell us a little more about that motivation.

Improvement Kata

The first model is called the Improvement Kata and it is a routine you practice to learn a new skill. Specifically, the ability to make progress towards a goal by experimenting with a hypothesis, and then a reflecting on what you learned after taking an action step. This methodical step-by-step approach results in deep learning about the process you are trying to improve. It is also a meta-skill that changes the way we engage in problem solving no matter what the context. The Improvement Kata pattern is made up of four steps: 1. Define a Challenge (long-term goal) 2. Grasp the current condition 3. Set your Next Target Condition 4. Identify obstacles and experiment to remove them.

A Rallying Cry

Setting an appropriate Challenge (a long-term goal) is important in creating motivation and not the typical way we solve problems. Instead of striving for something positive, we focus on problems, what is wrong, what’s not working right. For instance, at a recent client, leaders wanted their challenge to address what in their view was lackluster staff productivity. Their goal was to increase clinical staff productivity to 0.30Hours/Unit of Service. Productivity is an important goal from budgetary perspective, but motivating to the team?? Not so much!

Focus on the Positive

If we flip this challenge and instead think of it as something positive to strive for, it might read: “All patients are cared for and we all go home on time.” Note that the measurement of this challenge may remain the same, but what we’re striving for is to take care of all our assigned patients with no overtime or extra staffing. The same, but so different! If I’m a worker, I want to do my best, but I also want to get out of work on time. Customer facing, but also motivating to an individual.

Self-Directed Learning

As a comparison, in the book Primal Leadership, Daniel Goleman, Richard Boyatzis and Annie McKee present the Theory of Self-Directed Learning. A typical leadership development program is based on the creation of a performance plan. It focuses on your leadership gaps, what you need to change, how you’re not doing well. Maybe you need better communication skills or to improve your ability giving feedback to direct reports. These problems with your performance lead to an action plan for change.

Ideal Vision

In self-directed learning, the performance improvement plan is turned upside down. Step 1 is not identifying gaps, but instead is about crafting an ideal vision of oneself including what you want in your life and work. What is your dream for your life?  Your ideal values? What is most important to you? Imagine yourself five years from now and finish the sentence: I am _____. Most programs focus on improving performance at work and what you SHOULD be. Goleman says, “When you go through the process of discovering an ideal vision of yourself, you feel motivated [emphasis mine] to develop your leadership abilities.” However, when values are imposed, and the only focus is improving a set of competencies, motivation dwindles.

Learning Agenda

After establishing an ideal, the second step is similar to Improvement Kata, what is my real self? What are my strengths and my weaknesses? What do others think of me? My peers, boss, and direct reports? What am I good at? How could I be more effective? Now that an ideal self is created, and your real self understood, a learning agenda is created. Note the words, a learning agenda. This is not an action plan. Not a gap analysis. What do I need to learn more about in order to get closer to my ideal self?

The Missing Piece

Both of these methodologies are about change and improvement and both are designed to harness motivation by grabbing onto not just the mind, but the heart. Attunement to our emotional selves is what creates motivation to change. Also, both focus on learning as a way forward.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, overworked and stuck day-dreaming but never achieving improvement, it’s not because you lack discipline. Try flipping your perspective from what is wrong to an ideal that motivates you to move forward.

Photo by Ryoji Iwata on Unsplash

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