Change Project 911: Help! How do we deal with change project interruptions?

Mat Roosa, LCSW-R
NIATx Coach

Maintaining forward momentum on top priorities

Once your team has developed a change project and you have strong executive support, it might seem like things should be smooth sailing. But there are a number of ways that a strong project can be blown off course.

Competing priorities

Before the 1900s, the word “priority” was only used in the singular. The logic seems clear: there can only be one most important element. During the last 100 years, we have grown to accept the notion of multiple priorities and have then focused on strategies to juggle them. Most of us keep adding new elements until we experience failure. We keep adding balls to our juggling effort until we start dropping them. 

You’ve probably heard the adage, “If everything is a priority, then nothing is a priority.” It speaks to one of the most important roles of  executive sponsors, as they help the team to maintain a focus on the critical priority activity(ies). With leadership help, your change team can work proactively to limit elements that are not true priorities and to focus the team energy where it counts: on mission-critical work.  

Maintaining momentum

Even with effective prioritization, new challenges can emerge that threaten the team’s focus. COVID 19, and all of the related stressors that systems have experienced because of it, are powerful examples of challenges to even the best priority planning. 

So how can a team maintain forward momentum when new priorities or crises emerge that challenge the change effort? When we coach teams that encounter these challenges, we sometimes think about the simple act of riding a bicycle. Strong forward motion creates a high level of stability to the change project. While slowing the project down reduces some project stability, maintaining some motion will ensure project health. The change project, like a bike, falls over when it stops moving forward.

Coaches, executive sponsors, and change leaders can work to ensure that, regardless of emerging priorities and challenges to momentum, the change project continues to move forward. Circumstances may require that the project slow down to accommodate challenges, but steady motion will maintain change project stability and progress.  

Staying Focused

Try these four practical strategies to help a team stay focused on top priorities and maintain forward motion:

  1. Provide regular “focusing” messages from leadership. Executive sponsors can set the tone by regularly reminding staff about the critical functions and goals. Accountability to leadership regarding progress on these priorities will also ensure proper priority focus and forward momentum. 

  2. Meet regularly. This is a simple and often-neglected fix. One of the ways that teams can maintain focus and momentum is to maintain a disciplined meeting schedule to address next steps and sustain a change project. 

  3. Use a checklist and check in. Using a checklist can add structure to ensure that the team addresses the key priorities when they meet. A short list and a timed agenda will aid the team in moving each priority forward in each meeting and will avoid the stalling of momentum that occurs when items are neglected.

  4. Create a data dashboard. Each priority project should be managed with a simple graph or table that reflects the project’s key measures. Gathering these graphs together in a central and accessible location provides a highly useful dashboard for monitoring activities —and a motivating visual display of change team progress.  

About Change Project 911

Change Project 911 is a monthly blog post series covering common change project barriers and how to address them. Has your change project hit a snag that you’re not sure to tackle? Share your issue in the comments section below, or email Change Project 911 at matroosa@gmail.comWe’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. 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

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