Creating change is tough, and it isn’t much easier if you are the owner and your name is on the door of the company. Recently a friend and business owner was telling me “I have been battling with my people for almost a year to change our process and I am running out of energy to continue.” His frustration mirrors things I have heard from dozens of other owners and business leaders whose experience is that change takes longer, delivers less, and eats up much more of their energy than it should.
While I don’t have any silver bullets, there are some things that I have learned in my 25 years of consulting to leaders that do help accelerate the process and reduce the frustration. If you’re finding that an important initiative is languishing or running into road blocks here are some things to consider.
Management and Leading Change are Different Beasts
Change comes with strong emotional components that make it a very different undertaking than the daily activities of managing. To get a salesperson to pursue a lead you turned up at a conference, instructing the individual to take the action and following up are likely to work well. But instructing your sales team to shift their selling approach from talking about your product and its features, to first questioning the customer to expose his need is likely to be less successful. Even when you have done the training and worked to achieve buy-in in advance the desired actions are much less likely to be taken.
There are any number of potential issues—lack of confidence, discomfort, unverbalized fears, unanswered questions, etc.—that I won’t go into here, that will cause a delay in the action. People will make partial efforts, or there will be reasons given why additional work needs to be done first, or why these sales calls are different and should be handled another way. You can probably supply your own examples as well. The long and the short of it is that the change will be put off or watered down. And it often happens repeatedly like this before the real issues even get verbalized. Change is different, and recognizing this is the first step in adjusting your approach.
Be Prepared to Get into the Details
One of the things many leaders are reluctant to do is get deep into the specifics of the change. No one likes micro-management, on either side of it. But staying out of the details, especially at the beginning of the change process will almost always result in delays. There might be any number of reasons for it—people put off acting, they don’t know where to start, they hit an obstacle, people in their area are pushing back, they are afraid of making a mistake or looking less-than-competent, their first attempts were less-than-successful, etc.—and unless you are knee-deep in it as the leader, you won’t even know where you are stuck. Not only will things languish, but when you do finally get into the details exposing the real cause will be more difficult and you are likely to encounter more resistance because of the initial lack of results.
Getting into the details at the start of a change process is not the same as micro-management, besides people really don’t want to be left alone. They want support. My son is learning to ride a bike, and in spite of his strong independence, he absolutely wants me to hold onto the seat and not let him fall. So right from the start delving into the details alongside your team will help ensure the needed actions are taken, obstacles encountered are overcome, and hidden fears and concerns get voiced. Yes, you will spend more time up front, but you will spend much less time overall, and your implementation will progress much faster.
Focus on Risk
No matter how much your change will improve the business, perceived risk will be a major factor in how quickly people adopt something new. It matters a lot that you as the leader/ owner recognize there will be hiccups in the beginning, and even give them permission to fail. But don’t fool yourself that statements of support will be sufficient to overcome resistance. No one likes to fail, feel incompetent, or to look bad in front of others.
Leaders can do a lot to overcome this simply by getting the question of risk out in the open. Many, maybe most, of the risks people fear turn out to be a lot smaller than the what is in their head. Getting the issue out in the open helps immediately; from there you can work through solutions to reduce the risk people feel. Getting people to try the new bid process on jobs you are less-likely to win anyway feels a lot less risky than using it on that huge bid from our best customer. Playing out worst-case scenarios can also help people realize the risk is much less than they fear. And when you voice your support for them, even in the worst-case, the reasons not to start will get smaller and smaller.
Emphasize Learning over Results
Change usually puts people into situations where the outcomes are less predictable to them. We have a lot of experience with the old ways, and even if they don’t work as well as we’d like, the outcomes are predictable and that matters to people. With any change, it’s critical to develop intuition and comfort with the new ways. By emphasizing learning and analyzing every experience—good and bad—you not only help people to improve their comfort with the new approach, you trigger the refinement efforts that are needed in almost every change initiative. In this mode of operating, every time we learn the activity was a success, no matter what the immediate business results are.
Take Small Steps, One at a Time
Breaking your change process down into smaller steps, and working them one at a time to completion may feel like the slow way, but in reality it will accelerate most efforts considerably. Defining individual actions within a larger effort reduces the magnitude of the change in people’s minds. With smaller steps you have more opportunities to achieve the early successes so important to motivation. Working these smaller steps, one at a time to completion before moving on to the next, also accelerates the process. When people are working many steps at once they will tend to make progress on all but complete few. Not only is this kind of multi-tasking inefficient but it reduces our sense of success because we are working hard, but finishing nothing.
Leading change is one of the most difficult challenges every leader undertakes, even in the best of circumstances. Recognizing that change requires a different level and type of leadership can help you avoid my friend’s frustration, maintain the energy and enthusiasm in your company, and get you faster to the higher profits you are working so hard to achieve.