In a recent study almost 35% of executives predicted drastic change within their organization within the next year. The majority admitted most change efforts in the past had failed. At the same time too many businesses aren’t changing enough: big investments in old systems, fixation with past successes, and blindness to market trends all hold back business leaders from initiating the changes needed to stay successful.
Dr. Terry Paulson, in his Bullet Proof manager session on Managing Strategic Change, has some pointers on how to get it right:
1. Do not be trapped by organizational autopilot
Organizations as well as people develop habits which interfere with our ability to identify a need for change. As John Paul Getty said, “Experience is your own worst enemy.” Donald Sull, a London Business School professor, defines as Active Inertia an organization’s tendency to follow established patterns of behavior – even in response to dramatic environmental shifts. “Stuck in the modes of thinking and working that brought success in the past, market leaders simply accelerate all their tried-and-true activities. In trying to dig themselves out of a hole, they just deepen it.”
Our job as managers is not to change everything, but to identify changes that are worth making – starting with our own habits and processes.
2. Keep change strategic
Every improvement is the result of change. Not every change is an improvement. Paulson reminds us to take the best from the past that works and innovate in other areas. Action alone solves nothing – in fact, it often makes matters worse. Instead of rushing to ask, “What’s next?” managers should pause to ask, “What hinders us from achieving our vision?”
3. Manage tensions
Organizations and teams need both activists and reactionaries. A lot of what leadership is about is managing tension to allow the best ideas to develop.
4. “To sell the change, be the music”
You might know change is needed, you may have the greatest idea ever for reform and innovation, but unless other people are aware that there’s a need to upset the status quo you’re unlikely to gather much support.
Think Charlie Chaplin. You know when the flower girl’s about to appear when her motif starts to play. Dramatic strings signal danger ahead. Our job is to create the music that makes people aware that change is coming.
If you don’t sell the need for change people aren’t going to buy in to your idea. You want the response to be “It’s about time!”, not “What are we doing this for?”
When people shoot down a (good) idea, it’s generally fear-driven. People need to see a proposal as “safe”. If you can show that your proposal is clearly aligned with the company’s culture, mission, and values, people are more willing to adopt it as a natural fit. From acceptance comes buy-in and implementation; from fear of change comes resistance and failure.
5. Don’t tell people there won’t be more changes
The Zeigarnik Effect demonstrates how we are bothered by things that aren’t complete, we love closure. It’s why we sit through a film we’re not enjoying much or gallop to the end of a novel. Paulson points out that life is more like a soap opera, where we don’t make one change and are done, but where one change follows on the heels of another. As managers we break trust if we tell people we’ll be through. Our challenge is to keep people excited about the changes. Complacency equals boredom. Change enables growth.
6. Keep selling the vision
The vision – where we need to be – must be compelling enough to keep people excited. Paulson challenges us to get the vision off the wall and into actions and choices that make a difference. Keep the vision fresh. Reinforce it at the start of every meeting. It is very critical that you keep hope alive; all compelling missions suffer setbacks and disappointments. Optimistic people have a track record of overcoming obstacles. Believe in your people before they believe in themselves.
7. Practice saying “No”
Peter Drucker reportedly once said, “The essence of strategy is denial.”
The trick of strategic focus lies not just in making progress in the direction you are moving; the bigger challenge is avoiding wasting resources on destinations and opportunities that are tempting but distracting. “No” is an important word that brings clarity to your goals and your business plan. In a world of constant change and cost containment, every leader must work hard to invest where it counts and redirect poorly focused resources to the mission at hand.
Think of the people in your firm who are focused on distractions instead of strategic opportunities. Make sure you and your team are saying “No” to what isn’t worth doing, and saying a resounding “Yes” to the work that will deliver on the strategic promise the future must provide. You will never have enough resources to do it all; you must have enough resources to deliver on the things that matter most. This week, start eliminating a few of the distractions for your team.
8. Learn, Unlearn, Relearn
The importance of lifelong learning is well documented, but be sure to keep it strategic. Anything else is a waste of resources.
Once people expected a career for life – now that expectation leaves them very good at something no one needs. If the horse is dead get off it. Learn, unlearn and relearn – illiterates of the future can’t do these.
Much resistance to change comes from people who haven’t had a chance to learn the skills needed to implement it. Give information early enough about the direction the company is taking then provide the opportunity for people to learn skills that will be an asset down the line. Make it clear that people can’t rest on past skills. Send the message – “As long as you’re involved in learning we’re committed with you.” And model the behavior you want by committing to strategic lifelong learning yourself.
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