What if Everything You’ve Been Told About Leading Change is Wrong?

Blogger’s note: This piece is abstracted and reblogged from the Cutter Consortium. I originally wrote it for their Business Technology Strategies Email Advisor, August 2012.
ChangingDo you want to lead an organization that’s nimble and flexible so it thrives under conditions of change, complexity, and uncertainty? Of course you do.

Then you’ll want to distinguish change as a noun from change as a verb (stay with me here, you’ll get value from this, I promise). And you will want to do significantly less of the first and much more of the second.

What Do I Mean by Change?

Let’s get specific about what we mean when we say change. The fascination with managing large-scale organizational change has left a field scattered with useless abstractions. I call this body of “knowledge” ChangeA — change in the abstract. So much of the advice we’ve all heard and bought into is both abstract and misleading. For example:

  • Change is hard.
  • People resist change.
  • You must overcome people’s resistance.
  • You must plan and manage the change.

Guess what? People also do not resist change, hence the second bullet above is not true in all cases. In fact I believe it is not even true in most cases.

People resist imposed change, what I call ChangeI.

And not all change is hard. So the first bullet above is also not true in all cases, maybe not even most cases.

Take chosen change for example, or what I also call contextual change — ChangeC. Contextual change is relatively easy. Imagine being blocked from your goal of driving to your favorite restaurant along your usual route. What do you do? Resist (“No, they can’t close that street!) or simply reroute? Of course you reroute. That’s ChangeC.

With these two illustrations I’ve shown that all four ChangeA principles in the bullets above are not true in all cases. In fact, they apply only to a certain type of change.

So now that you’ve made three important distinctions represented by ChangeA, ChangeI, and ChangeC, let’s look at two more important distinctions after which I’ll offer some tips about applying this important leadership mindset.

ChangeA Is Change as a Noun

Most everything you’ve been taught as an executive leader about change is noun-based change. Consider what you do when managing change: you talk about the change.

  1. You give “it” a name such as Quality Transformation 2015.
  2. You describe the from state, the to state, and the gap.
  3. You plan the rollout.
  4. You anticipate resistance (by the way, did you know that the moment you give any change a name, you create resistance that wasn’t there before?).
  5. You bring out the organizational change marketing machinery to roll over the resistance. You launch it.
  6. You measure it.
  7. And more.

You get the idea of change being a thing — a noun — an “it”.

Managing change as a noun commits a fundamental error of performance management: rewarding the wrong behavior.

Instead of pointing people toward adding value, you point them toward the change and tell them how great it will be — no wonder they resist! This is akin to pointing children toward making A’s instead of developing a love of learning (we’ll return to this love of learning below). By high school I figured out how to produce grades with little effort — or learning. How about you?

Change as a Verb Means a Vibrant Organization

When you design your organization around nested cadences of cross-functional self-organizing teams all focused on aligning performance and value, then you receive a phenomenal amount of small improvements and course corrections every day. This is ChangeC. It’s chosen. It’s contextual. And each change is relatively easy.

This is change as a verb. People voluntarily change priorities, focus, tasks, and even directions because delivering the next increment of value calls for it.

Another word for the same thing is “learning.” People in a learning organization choose effective changes frequently and easily.

And another word for this is self-organizing: people know who they need to talk to about what and are free to do so. Why? So they can be most effective.

Organizing for Change, Complexity, and Uncertainty Requires Leading Verb-Based Change

This is the essence of business agility. I don’t think of agility as a software development process and neither should you. I think of agility as organizing so all components can change (immediate priority and focus) without changing (their identity or routine).

Getting Started

Here are a few ideas to get started practicing change as a verb.

First, resist with all of your might naming any organizational change program. Instead, identify the Big Why driving the program and simply promote that Big Why (and not as the reason for the program).

Allow others to discover for themselves how the program will help them achieve the Big Why. When they point out the connection to you, instead of you taking credit, let them keep it. Say “Thank you for making that connection. Congratulations. I can’t wait to hear about your success with that.”

The principle at work here is straightforward: keep people focused on what is most important while moving new resources to places the people can discover for themselves when they need the extra value those resources provide.

Second, see value production as cross-functional, not siloed. Experiment with some small, high-level, cross-functional teams focused on rapid and continuous improvement of a significant organizational pain point. Identify a cadence for incremental goal setting, planning, and execution. Identify appropriate feedback loops the team can employ for self-organization and course correction.

Third, immerse yourself too in cadences of “next-step” strategic dialogue and execution. Look for momentum that can only come from an exciting rhythm of Action > Feedback > Learning > Next-Step Planning.

In parallel with each of these steps, eliminate expensive right-wrong thinking — starting with your own — and replace it with empirical thinking. Empirical thinking values learning (as in “a love of learning”), progress, well-tuned feedback loops, discovery, experiments, prototypes, and incremental advances. It eschews endless analysis and planning without feedback-producing action and momentum.

If you crave a deeper immersion in these ideas see our leadership workshop Leading Agile Change for Executives.

Posted in Change Management, Leadership on 02/25/2014 12:44 pm
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