Whenever you have more than a handful of people on a team or at the same level in an organization, you run into countless opportunities for people to fall out of synch, misunderstand each other, and drift off course. For the leader, it can be extraordinarily frustrating to introduce or support an initiative and sponsor crucial discussions only to see the necessary change fade away.

It’s hard to maintain momentum for initiatives and programs: Employees lose focus or get caught up in other aspects of their jobs. (See Four Ways Team Decision-Making Can Derail for more reasons momentum gets lost.)

Countering Organizational Entropy

Luckily, there are many different things you can do to counteract the entropy of organizational life and keep progress going. These actions are all normal, if potentially uncomfortable, aspects of the leader’s job — that is, if the leader is in it for the long haul.

1. Clarify participant roles.

Who’s a decision-maker? Who’s a subject matter expert? Who’s a good thinker and a supporter of process? Who has overall responsibility for coordinating next steps? People may not recognize or figure out their roles by themselves; leadership means not leaving them at sea and rudderless.

If a group can’t work things out internally or even with their leader’s input, then the leader may need to get outside help.

2. Define terms and emphasize context.

Try to have a single set of descriptors that everyone understands to avoid the typical confusions that occur with incongruent definitions. Even within a single organization, the range of meanings for terms like “strategy,” “alignment,” or “business model” is mind-boggling. Share context early and often and at every major discussion or review. That includes the mission, relevant goals, and value statements that emphasize “how we do things here” and how people are expected to behave with each other.

3. Help people put their concerns on the table.

Again, don’t leave anyone flailing. Provide mentoring so there is learning and growth in how to express even disruptive thoughts throughout the process.

4. Document commitments.

Be sure to put commitments in writing, whether it’s in meeting notes, through a project management tool, on a progress board of banner headlines, or just on a flipchart in the break room. It doesn’t matter how you record everything, but do it to reinforce the fact that these commitments exist in the real world, and that they will be reviewed and updated.

5. Note progress as well as what remains to be done.

Put each sub-initiative or task on a sticky note on the wall, or draw a mountain range on a white board and label each peak, or just keep a whopper of a list with check-off boxes, using colors for different categories. As tasks or projects are completed, move the notes, shade in the mountains, or check off the boxes so that everyone can see what’s completed and what’s still to come.

Specify and re-specify each initiative’s general timeframe — whether it’s next week or a 30/60/90-day sequence. And keep tabs on anything sitting in the “parking lot” waiting to be addressed, checking from time to time to see if any of those items should be moved to the current task list.

6. Untangle any communication snafus.

Consider how “knotted” email threads can get. More and more often, people only skim an email for the things they care about and miss the general concept or context. Or they stop reading altogether once they think they have the gist of the message, no matter how many details follow.

And if you’ve been back and forth on the same issue a couple of times, or you have lots of people weighing in from multiple viewpoints, complications often occur, so get as close to holding a face-to-face forum as you can. At the least, do voice-to-voice so you can “read” what’s going on with others in a more visceral way.

7. Recognize when you’re stuck.

Once you’ve held the same discussion twice without seeing any real movement, add something else — new data, different participants, or an outside view — to the third try. Don’t let the people or the process languish.