80/20 Change: How to Survive Workplace Uncertainty

June 2, 2021

by Phil Buckley

Constant change is a reality for all organizations and individuals. Changes in the workplace have never been at a higher rate or faster pace than they are right now. Most people grapple with multiple disruptions, from mergers and acquisitions to restructuring, pandemics, and digital transformations. There is little time to plan for, let alone implement, change, which can be overwhelming—it is overwhelming.

Being successful in change is not about being perfect; it’s about being fast and effective when faced with change challenges so you can move on to the next task or issue. Acting intentionally and quickly is essential for managing change-related tasks—the speed of execution matters.

Under stress, people will often try many things simultaneously, hoping to increase the likelihood that one or more will stick—the more, the better. This approach gives you poor results and a reputation for not being at your best. It’s better to focus your energy and resources on the one action that will give you 80 percent of the results you want in 20 percent of the time and effort.

Benefits of an 80/20 Approach to Change Tasks and Challenges

There are four benefits for adopting an 80/20 lens to change: prioritization of effort, focused resources, shorter response time, and confidence. Instead of instinctively reacting to situations, prioritizing your actions focuses your efforts on the one action that will give you the best results. Since you rarely have enough resources, using them on your best option produces better outcomes. Identifying and activating multiple actions takes time. Delaying action is rarely a good strategy during change because issues amplify with time. Focused action also calms you down and builds your confidence. It moves you from thinking and worrying to delivering and progressing.

Overcoming a Blocker

Let’s see how the 80/20 approach to change applies to overcoming a blocker.

Blockers are people who raise barriers to your success. They either don’t want something done, or they want it done differently. You need to deal with these people quickly. Fighting a blocker head-on doesn’t work because even if you get support from leaders, the resistance continues behind the scenes. Justifying your actions with facts can be effective in the short term, but it won’t resolve the issues—blockers keep blocking until there is no benefit to doing so. Not only will the issues not go away, they will also intensify as the blockers become more frustrated.

An 80/20 response to a blocker is to align your work with their agenda. It is helpful to know that a blocker’s issue isn’t personal. They are not opposing you, but rather the action you want to take, which they believe will adversely affect them. Blockers will support you when the benefits of doing so outweigh those gained from opposing you.

The three steps to aligning with a blocker are:

1. Ask them to clarify their issue or concern.

Understanding their issue and how they believe your approach will harm them is the first step in neutralizing a blocker. They need to trust you, or at least believe you are not a threat, before they will disclose their real concern. Appearing to sincerely be open to their issue is the fastest way to engage a blocker in dialogue. Make your intentions clear by saying, “I want my work to support your agenda.”

2. Demonstrate how your work will help them.

If it doesn’t benefit them, indicate how alternative approaches will harm them more. They might not be aware of all the facts or the other options available. Yours might be the best option to minimize the negative impacts on what they are trying to achieve or preserve.

3. Adjust your approach to accommodate their comments.

Make any adjustments that don’t compromise your objective to get blockers on your side, or at least to not prevent your success. Often, adjusting details will not alter the outcome of your plan, and it will give the blocker a win they can feel good about. They might even reciprocate by showing support for your adjusted plan.

I have seen people immediately undertake multiple strategies without considering what will give them the best results with the least effort and time. They may challenge them head-on, discredit them to others and tell their boss. With each attempt at resolving the issue, the blocker becomes more entrenched, and the negative effects amplify. An 80/20 approach directs you to the best approach given the information you have.

Managing change is like most things in life: one action will give us 80 percent of the benefits in 20 percent of the time. Choosing the right action is better than spending your time and energy deliberating over many. You will be able to accomplish more, build your change skills and confidence, too.


Phil Buckley is an award-winning author and change management strategist with over 32 large-scale change initiatives, including co-leading global change management for the $19.6 billion Kraft Foods acquisition of Cadbury. He is the founder and president of Change With Confidence, a change management consulting firm that helps leaders champion change to create a better future.

Phil is the author of Change on the Run: 44 Ways to Survive Workplace Uncertainty and Change with Confidence: Answering the 50 Biggest Questions that Keep Change Leaders Up at Night. You can find Phil’s podcast, Change on the Run, along with the Change with Confidence blog and monthly newsletter at changewithconfidence.com.