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Change Project 911: Help! My Project Is Dragging on Too Long

Mat Roosa, LCSW-R
NIATx Coach

The Problem 

Change projects are not meant to be open-ended. They’re meant to move quickly and efficiently to extract the maximum benefits. Dave Gustafson, who developed the NIATx model, recommends limiting change projects to no more than a few weeks. Some change projects can be completed successfully in as little as a day. If you find your team in the middle of a never-ending project, try to diagnose the root cause that’s derailing the project.
Any one of these underlying problems could make a change project drag on:
1. Vague aim statement. A change project without a specific, time-limited goal can drag on indefinitely.
The Fix:  Watch your “altitude.”
Some aim statements aim too high (“Improve service quality”) and do not provide any focus for the team. These vague aims are like asking where to find a product in a big-box hardware store and being told, “Yeah, we have that! It’s in the store somewhere.” That’s not enough detail to move you in the right direction.
Other aim statements may aim too low: “Improve the friendliness of the first statements delivered to customers on their first visit.” These types of aim statements are too specific to create much energy or have much impact. Sometimes these low altitude aims end up looking more like a specific strategy. Start with a more straightforward “mid-altitude” aim to ensure clarity for your team. For example: “Improve the first session experience for clients to increase the session 2 show rate by 30%.”
Ask the following key question to identify low-hanging fruit:
What can we do right now that we all agree would result in an improvement?
1. Fix simple technology glitches that reduce access. Any easy fix? Update a long or obsolete voicemail menu.
2. Create a welcoming environment. A fresh coat of paint on the walls and a new lamp are inexpensive improvements that can go a long way in enhancing the customer experience.
3. Engagement scripts. Follow the lead of many customer service efforts in retail environments: train staff to use key language and phrases to connect with clients and increase continuation in care.

• Use a simple aim statement recipe:  "Increase A from B to C by Date D." Almost any change project aim can be plugged into this formula to add clarity.

• Limit the project length!  It’s easy to forget that we call it Rapid-Cycle Change for a reason. Establishing a shorter time frame will push the team to choose projects that can have a measurable impact in the shorter term. “Sometime early next year” does not count as a completion date. Deadlines can help create a sense of urgency that can motivate the team to keep things moving. The “T” in SMART goals stands for “time-bound” as the project's time frame is critical to a precise aim.
• Pick a measure that the team can monitor easily and frequently. Imagine that you are driving down a twisty country road in the dark. Now imagine that your headlights only shine once every 10 seconds for a single second. How long would it take you to complete your journey? Teams find themselves in a similar dilemma when measuring elements with low frequency or elements for which data is not frequently available. The team is then stuck moving very slowly toward its goal, with limited capacity to gauge success.
2. Lack of regular change team meetings. Projects can flounder if change teams don’t meet regularly to monitor PDSA cycles, analyze data, and brainstorm.
• Use existing meetings Sometimes a change team meeting can be tacked on to the front or the back of a standing staff meeting to ensure attendance and efficient use of time.
• Keep change team meetings short A brief and frequent approach to meetings can foster attendance, as members feel a stronger return on their time investment.
• Executive sponsorship Leaders can be critical in setting expectations for the change team related to regular meetings and project status updates.
About Change Project SOS
Change Project SOS is a monthly blog post series covering common change project barriers and how to address them. Has your change project hit a wall that you're not sure how to tackle? Share your story in the comments section below, or email Change Project SOS at [email protected]. We’ll offer solutions from our team of change project experts!
About our Guest Blogger
Mat Roosa was a founding member of NIATx and has been a NIATx coach for a wide range of projects. He works as a consultant in quality improvement, organizational development and planning, and implementing evidence-based practices. Mat also serves as a local government planner in behavioral health in New York State. His experience includes direct clinical practice in mental health and substance use services, teaching at the undergraduate and graduate levels, and human service agency administration. You can reach Mat (Change Project SOS) at [email protected].
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The opinions expressed herein are the views of the authors and do not reflect the official position of the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), SAMHSA, CSAT or the ATTC Network. No official support or endorsement of DHHS, SAMHSA, or CSAT for the opinions of authors presented in this e-publication is intended or should be inferred.