Leading Change

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There was a time, long ago, when we could expect next year to look a lot like this year. But the era of change began and is no danger of slowing down. It is therefore reasonable to assume (and unreasonable to resist) that things will continue to change.

Given the inevitability of change, many people focus on: What will be the next big change? When is it coming? What will it mean for me?

Reasonable questions to be sure. But there is a more basic question too rarely asked that is key to our success as leaders and it is this:

What is my personal brand in regards to change?

We all have one. Even if we aren’t conscious of it, our change brand is telegraphed by the observable patterns in our responses to everyday workplace changes such as: getting a new boss; introducing a new initiatives; handling an inconvenient ‘what if’ or ‘why don’t we’ question during a meeting. When change looms, big or small, planned or unplanned, leaders signal their change posture. And our employees, our colleagues see it and take note. Therefore, it helps mightily to know as others see it so we can leverage or improve it as required. Some examples of change brands you might recognize include:

  • My Way or the Highway (except on small issues where I’ll be happy to do it your way)
  • If it’s Not Broke, No Need to Fix It (so please keep doing what I asked you)
  • Just Prove It (Give me the facts; explain how you can help us be better and I’m all ears).
  • Busy Busy Busy (Too much; too hard; so overwhelmed but we have to figure it out somehow)
  • I don’t know (How could I know: I wasn’t included; and by the way, I’m never included)
  • Power Poor (We can’t do that; Wish we could but….)
  • We Own Our Future (Whatever we should do, we can find a way)

When I first ask my clients to describe their change brand, I often hear: It depends on the change. At which point I say (with care and respect): Actually, not so much.

Here’s some relevant psychology to consider. Workplace change triggers reactions in us but doesn’t create them. How we think, feel and respond to change has its roots in our personal history. As a parent, I know that I work hard to empower my children to find opportunities in change. I also know that I’m imperfect and they will enter their careers with some unintended baggage. We all have inputs from our childhoods that will help or hinder our leadership posture towards change. We either know that in regards to ourselves or we don’t. We either self-correct quickly when we stumble or we don’t. We either lead others through their reactions to change or we don’t. Those are our choices…

So – how do we consciously improve our change brand? Start by taking an inventory of how you think, feel and behave related to change. Be honest with yourself. We can’t improve something we don’t see or own.

THINK

  • Do I initiate ideas for improvement? How many last month?
  • How do I receive change I don’t initiate?
  • Do I work hard to develop a winning game plan in my area of influence to make the change successful?

FEEL

  • What attitudes toward change have I developed from childhood or past experiences? Are they helping or hindering me?
  • Do I take responsibility for any feelings of anxiety, fear, and defensiveness or do I make it about the change or the change leader?
  • Do I factor in the feelings and emotions of others as I try to lead or drive change?

BEHAVE

  • Do I take risks in the direction that my PTW asks?
  • Do I stay the course in implementing my winning game plan even though it gets hard?
  • Do I get up fast when my risks play out imperfectly?

Review your answers and think about the change brand you are consciously or unconsciously creating with your thoughts, feelings and behavior. Capture the essence of your brand in words. Test your view with others who work with you when you are both ‘on’ and ‘off’ script. Think about how you can improve your brand or the demonstration of your brand. Identify some actions you can take to make that happen. What changes are coming up in your department or workgroup that could provide opportunities for new behavior? What ideas for change have you been putting off sharing?

In summary, here are some reminders about change:

  • It’s ongoing
  • It’s not always convenient
  • It’s sometimes messy
  • I won’t like everything (I don’t like everything now)
  • I won’t be certain of where it’s all going
  • Things will change with the change
  • I won’t be part of every conversation related to the change that I’d like to be
  • I won’t win every discussion I have about how things should be
  • Not everyone will give me a standing ovation for my ideas or my change
  • My department needs my best ideas about areas needing improvement that are aligned with the company’s direction
  • I don’t have a perfect boss relative to change
  • I am not a perfect boss relative to change

By consciously creating and conveying your personal change brand, you can better position yourself and others to work constructively with these truths.

The Bottom Line: Change is inevitable. How you deal with it, especially when it gets hard or no one is looking, defines your personal change brand. You can just let it happen – or you can consciously create it to support your company and career goals.

Leading Change: Making the Case

Up until now we have focused on defining your personal change brand. Now I want to talk about a crucial aspect of change that people talk about lot, but rarely do – at least not very well.

I’m talking about making the case for change so that “they” agree quickly and enthusiastically with “us” about doing things differently.

You know “them.” The difficult people. Not you or me or us, of course, but “them.” The ones who resist change, no matter how clear or nice we are about it. The ones who love the status quo… who can’t think outside the box or their silo or their store.

“They” are out to make things difficult for “us.” You know “us.” We’re the good guys. The ones who want continuous improvement… who crave innovation… who do everything based on ‘the facts’… who are open to feedback and never defensive (no, really, never!).

If you want to make change happen, you have to build a bridge between “us” and “them.” If you do it well, people will make their way across, some running confidently, some walking slowly and holding onto the handrails, some being dragged kicking and screaming. But none of it can happen without the bridge. And a key part of that bridge is your case for change.

Creating and conveying a case for change that ‘they’ will accept is hard in many ways. None of us can ever collect ‘all the facts’ to answer all the questions that please all the people. Secondly, the easy organizational or business issues have all been solved; only hard ones remain. So tough trade-offs and uncertainties must be surfaced for credible conversation to ensue. Third, the future will unfold based on a mix of controllable and uncontrollable factors, so try as we might, we won’t be able to predict or guarantee the exact timeframe or costs of our success.

What then are our choices as we try to make our case for change? First, try to avoid common temptations such as:

  • Worrying more about a pretty powerpoint presentation than about addressing straightforward questions about where we are and where we want to be (there are actual organizations today that have banned PowerPoint because it seems to inhibit rather than facilitate business conversations between people… interesting)
  • Downplaying uncertainties so that the decision to act (as you have decided) appears obvious and risk-free
  • Appearing (or actually) focusing more on getting compliance than engagement on solving an issue or maximizing an opportunity
  • Diving into detailed tactics of HOW to solve an issue before people have bought in to the need to do anything differently.

In short, we forget that ‘they’ are ‘us’. And if you want me to see what you see, build a simple (but not simplistic) and solid bridge to get me there.

Here are the questions I ask my clients to answer about the change they are envisioning.

1. What’s not good enough about today?

2. What should it look like?

3. How important is this to us right now?

Let’s take each question individually:

Question #1: What’s not good enough about today?

It turns out that the vast majority of people want to do things better. They just don’t want to do more things or your things as a way of chasing better. And they really don’t want to chase better if there is nothing seriously wrong with today. We don’t want change for the sake of change and we don’t want to invest without a payoff.

Articulating what it is not good enough about today helps people see why change makes sense. In some cases, it means getting really specific about what is not working today, how you know (with a few key metrics rather than an avalanche of data) and why we should care. Sometimes the issue is hurting us today; sometimes we are more or less fine today but not set up tomorrow’s growth or greatness. Help me understand that.

You may find that there are so many opportunities for improvement that the challenge is less about finding one issue and more about choosing the most important area to fix. Here are some additional questions to help sort that out:

  • Where is the growth of your business or effectiveness coming from today?
  • Is that enough for tomorrow?
  • What should we do today so we would have no regrets, tomorrow?

For each of these, it’s important to be able to cite a critical few metrics you have relied on for your perspective. In the end, you want people to realize that “not changing” would be the more risky course of action. Otherwise, ‘they,’ like ‘us,’ want to get back to what we were already doing.

Question #2: What should it look like?

I’m talking here about painting a picture – broad brush, not fine detail. I find that a “From… To…” exercise can be very useful. In the “From” column, write what it looks like now. In the “To” column, write what it should look like after the change. Consider what will be different for your most important customers – and for you and your colleagues:

  • What will they/we say?
  • What will they/we do?
  • What results will we be getting? (in terms utilization and satisfaction)
  • How will it feel?

Don’t fall into the trap of trying to define every tiny detail. People will ask for it, but they don’t have to get it. Be up front about what you don’t know or can’t know with tremendous confidence yet. Point out what “we” need discover together as the change happens. This helps people feel more involved in the change. And involvement can lead to embracing and “owning” it.

Question #3: How important is this to us, right now?

Research shows that employees judge the significance of a new initiative by how much new investment and work rearrangements they see to drive this new priority. Experience shows us that if nothing new is invested, or nothing is sanctioned to fall off the proverbial plate, than nothing new will stay on the plate (or worse, you won’t be able to predict what will stay on).

Try to put into words what this change represents to you, as a leader, and to your group as a whole. What are you willing to stop doing to make it happen? Where does it rank in all the other priorities out there?

The sum total of these three questions is the heart of your case for change. The next step is to anticipate where the risks, vulnerabilities, assumptions are in your plan so that ‘they’ (grown -ups like us) will know that you’re willing to think things through and unwilling to hide information, doubts, questions from them. Ideally, we are engaging each other on the path to something better.

Here are a couple of examples:

EXAMPLE #1
Having a free and open exchange of views.

WHAT’S THE ISSUE
As measured by the yearly survey, many employees report dissatisfaction with the lack of free and open discussions they are having on work-related topics.

WHAT SHOULD IT BE
In order to establish and stay the course on our departmental Plan to Win, information about what’s working and what’s not needs to be easily and routinely exchanged so quick corrections or clarifications can be made.

HOW IMPORTANT IS THIS
This is so important that a department leadership has invested in quarterly ‘Open Talk’ forums for discussions on topics critical to the department’s success.

EXAMPLE #2 Driving strategic priorities

WHAT’S THE ISSUE As measured by the yearly survey, many employees report not being able to make consistent and satisfying progress on their most important work.

WHAT SHOULD IT BE? While we all can relate to having difficulty “getting it all done,” there should be quick corrections (individually and with our immediate management) if we are not able to drive our most important work.

HOW IMPORTANT IS THIS? This is so important that we are setting up monthly meetings between leaders and their staff to ensure that everyone is clear on their most important work and set up for success. I’ve already got mine on the calendar for the rest of the year.

The Bottom Line: Set yourself up for success in leading change by starting with these three questions to achieve clarity on why and how that change is needed. Then share it with others in a simple, compelling conversation.

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Laurie Anderson, PhD, is a clinical psychologist with over 20 years experience as an executive coach to leaders in organizations ranging from Fortune 100 companies to the World Bank. Visit www.drlaurieanderson.com or call 1-708-524-2444 for more information on Laurie’s services for individuals, groups, and organizations.


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