Over the last few years, we have had the distinct privilege of working with several leaders on driving organizational change. The pandemic has triggered massive growth in my change practice, and also a fundamental shift in direction – moving from traditional “managed change” to supporting executives in leading through ambiguity, chaos and disruption.
The essential nature of the changes I’m working on has evolved – from planned change exercises like a roll-out of a new IT system (ah, the days of straightforward change management!) to a focus on emergent transformation. That is, a pattern in which clients are most clear on what they are moving away from (such as fully in-office employees or legacy bureaucracy) but the destination is not yet fully formed. This is an exciting, transformational form of change leadership – but let’s face it, it’s also excruciatingly exhausting. Also, it bears mentioning that outdated change management models such as ADKAR are just not cutting it anymore.
I often think of my role in helping clients move through change as that of a midwife – it’s not my baby, but I have a front row seat to the pain, blood and guts involved in the process of giving birth to change.
It’s from that unique and privileged vantage point that I offer some words of support and counsel to those leaders embarking on their own journeys of change, with the hope that it may help illuminate their path toward transformation.
Dear Change Leader,
I’m sure you’ve read all the articles warning that 70% of changes fail – but don’t panic. That statistic has been largely discredited, and I’m sure you’ve totally got this.
Still, it’s probably smart to jump into your change project with your eyes wide open to some of the pitfalls and dangers that you may encounter along the path. Here are a few words of support and counsel from my experience working in the trenches with leaders like you who have the guts and the discipline to step up and make change happen.
- This is probably going to take more time than you think. Do the best you can to plan for your change, but I’ve never seen a transformation project finish ahead of schedule, and very few arrive on time. It’s probably wise to give yourself a bit of leeway for the unexpected.
- You can’t do this alone. Despite your passion, goodwill and savvy, you are going to need allies to help get your change off the ground. Embrace the opportunity to rally your leadership team and recruit an army of change agents to help you get from here to there.
- You won’t be able to plan for every eventuality. The thing about change projects is that things change all the time. Sure, go ahead and prepare a thoughtful change management plan – that’s the responsible thing to do. But at the same time, as things go off plan, keep in mind that as long as you have a clear intent and a path forward, you can deal with unexpected challenges and opportunities and still get to where you need to go. Your canoe will zig and zag in ways that you can’t predict – but as long as you know where you’re going and have the will to get there, you’ll still move forward.
- Get clear on why you’re changing in the first place. I imagine it’s very clear in your mind why your change is necessary. But remember, for your troops out there, that burning platform for change is probably a whole lot less obvious. No one will rally behind your change unless they really understand in their heads – and in their guts – that the status quo is no longer an option. Take the time to really nail down the “why” behind your change, and be sure to make that very clear to the organization before you set out to shift things. There’s a bunch of evidence that shows that the #1 reason for change failure is a weak establishment of the “why”. Be different and avoid this sand trap – you’ll thank me later!
- Resist the vortex of over-complication. Something happens when a group of smart people get in a room and start writing messages about a change project together. Things get very complicated and convoluted very fast. Do not fall into this trap. Rise above, and insist on expressing the intent behind your change in simple, straightforward and brief terms. This “North Star” for your change will be the centerpiece of all your change management efforts. Take heed to Einstein’s advice that “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler”.
- Try to focus on the “what” and let go of the “how”. Let’s be honest, you’re probably a bit of a control freak. I totally get that – and it’s probably one of the reasons you got to your leadership role in the first place. But when you’re working on a change assignment, you’re going to have to loosen up a bit. Try to make “what” you’re wanting to achieve really clear, and trust your teams enough to help figure out the “how”. This will be a whole lot more efficient and a whole lot less painful than you prescribing every move.
- Beware of black holes. The first casualty of change is communications. As leaders are consumed with the Herculean task of planning and executing change, they often lose track of the experience of employees who are busy with business as usual, and are probably quite unaware of what’s going on with the transformation. Develop the reflex of considering what the change looks and feels like to your front line employees, and be diligent in bridging the gap that exists between your vantage point and theirs. Otherwise, while you and your leaders try to finalize all the details of change, days without communication or updates are turning into weeks, and weeks into months for employees. This creates conditions that are ripe for black holes in information – which will be quickly filled by rumours and misinformation. Stay on top of your change communications to avoid falling into that hole. (Our Change Communications workshop can help).
- Manage your energy, not just your time. As we’ve already stated, this change adventure is going to take more time than you probably think. It also has the potential to suck your energy alive. There is a special kind of exhaustion that comes from trying to manage business as usual while also trying to get a major change project off the ground. So be kind to yourself and think about what you can do to manage your energy, not just your time. This might involve protecting your time off, making sure you have time to dis-connect, and prioritizing activities that recharge your batteries outside the office.
- Be the change you want to see. OK, so this may be a cliché, but it is really fundamental. As a leader, you play a huge role in modeling desired behaviours. People are watching you – they notice the way you talk, the decisions you make, the meetings you choose to attend, and those that you choose to skip. Be intentional, and be savvy – role modeling that the change is a priority and that you mean business is going to be vital to your success.
- Don’t be afraid of resistance. I get it – it’s not much fun to be in a room full of employees who are criticizing your change or rattling off the reasons why it can’t work. It’s exhausting. It’s demoralizing. But it can also be your secret weapon. Instead of trying to avoid – or worse yet, to quash such resistance, think of it as your friend. The energy of resistance is exactly what you need to harness and turn toward the positive. By acknowledging its force and working through the energy you can build sustainable commitment to change.
- Let go of perfection. When you are in the throes of change, keep in mind that your goal is not to convince everyone that your change is a good idea. That’s never going to happen. Instead, shift gears and consider that your goal is to achieve critical mass, not consensus. Some people will hate the change, and some may find that they no longer have a place on the boat as it shifts directions. That’s ok – it’s the natural consequence of change, and is a dynamic that’s not yours to control.
- Catch people doing the right thing. As you plough through the messy middle of change, try to make a habit of identifying and highlighting when things are going well. This is one of the most powerful things you can do – shine a light on successes and celebrate! This will go a long way toward demonstrating social proof that your change is a good idea, and can totally work.
Leading change is one of the most rewarding and satisfying adventures you will likely have in your career. Consider a few steps to set yourself up for success, and then enjoy the ride! For more resources, check out our Change Agent’s Toolkit, change leadership coaching and consulting services as well as workshops for your team.