But other people are able to think of life as one big adventure, and to view change as a part of that adventure. To these people, change is generally as welcomed as writing a new and unique chapter in their lives. When I was very young, my parents used to take me and my siblings camping on the American River in northern California. One day, I witnessed a score of Eagle Scouts in the whitewater by my campground upending their kayaks in the heavy turbulence. They swam ashore, pulled their vessels up on the bank, and started inspecting the damage. I was surprised to see how their spirits soared. In spite of one kayak on the bottom of the river, all of their food soggy or lost, everyone soaked to the skin and various other supplies gone for good; it was like a party to them. They told me that this was the best stretch of river they had ever been on, better than their Colorado River ride. It was exciting, and they wanted to ride it again!
I often think about these Scouts when I think about change. Life and business are both like a whitewater river ride. Sometimes you take a dive in the cold water, and have to spend time on the shore discarding your waterlogged sandwich and wringing out your socks; but you get back in that kayak and travel down the river again, not knowing what the future holds but knowing that this event has been a unique part of your life story. You know that you wouldn’t be who you are without these experiences.
No two people adapt to change in the same way. It is often your job as the leader of your organization to help people not only accept a necessary change, but to embrace it. Frequently your job is to turn their fear of the future into an exciting problem to be solved, necessary for the business. You may also have to identify those people who will not be able to change, and plan for their exit.
There are times when the sledgehammer approach – the “my way or the highway” method of change – is necessary due to the urgency of the situation. This approach may be justified, for instance, if your company is standing on the precipice of bankruptcy and you must ram through aggressive, unpopular and non-negotiable changes. Although using a “bad cop” to make unpopular changes and then replacing that manager later with a “good cop” can produce positive short-term results, the negative impact will be felt for many years, perhaps decades, and should only be used in a “save-the-firm” situation. I have actually witnessed this level of destruction, and wonder if there can ever be a recovery for these firms. More often than not, you get better results through capturing the minds and hearts of people rather than relying solely on position power to drive your agenda.
So how do leaders take organizations from complacency, or anxiety, to passion for a new vision? Managing change takes a special skill, and although some have written famously about the steps to successful change management , please don’t believe that all change management follows the same sequence of events. To be successful, you need a keen understanding of the current business situation, a clear vision of a better future, a high level of social awareness, and relationship management skills. Even the best strategy falls short if poorly executed, and in change management, execution means changing people’s view of their world and the need to move in a new direction. Every change management event must be tailored for the culture and the business issues that face the affected organization. So following a prescribed set of steps is dangerous. That said there are certain tenets that can be remembered, a set of immutable principles that will apply in essentially all change management situations.
Through years of experience in industry, speaking to and reading from leading experts on the subject, I have written the following tenets for myself. They act as a reminder to me when beginning a significant change. These tenets are:
- Fully understand and respect the current situation first.
- Learn together why change is necessary.
- Create a guiding coalition.
- Break it down into phases.
- Over-communicate. Be consistent. Make it simple.
- Empower decision making aligned with the vision.
- Plan, recognize and celebrate short term wins.
- Expect, identify and validate the grief process.
- Accept that some will not make the change.
- Be visible. Be involved.
In following blogs I will expound on each one of these tenets, beginning here with Tenet #1: Fully understand and respect the current situation first. I hope you will gain something of value from these writings.
Tenet #1: Fully understand and respect the current situation first.
“Respect the past, create the new.”
Although the author has faded into obscurity, this Japanese saying lives on in many beautiful Japanese calligraphy paintings. The meaning of these characters is that the future can only be built on a respect and an appreciation for what has come before. As the Spanish philosopher George Santayana stated, “Those who fail to learn the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them.” But there is a deeper meaning to the characters as well. To lead others, you must know where they come from. You must know what drives them. You must know why the choices of well-meaning and intelligent people were perhaps correct at some point in the past, but no longer work.
Years ago I was asked to transfer to another division of my company to work in the field of cardiac imaging. I had significant experience in the foundation technologies – such as acoustics, phased-arrays, materials and DSP – but I knew nothing about medical imaging. I also knew that those who recruited me were expecting new and significant insights. I started by interviewing about 50 experts in the acoustic imaging field in order to understand the state-of-the-art and the current assumptions of the day. Nearly all of these experts were anxious to see the summary report from these interviews. To make sure it correctly represented them, I reviewed what I had written with each interviewee before publishing the entire report. The result was powerful. Not only had I bootstrapped myself to a much better understanding of the field, but I had also validated and respected the tremendous knowledge of these experts. I gained their respect partially because I gave them respect; and when it came time to challenge many of the assumptions of the day during the following years, though they still demanded the requisite proof, I could move the thinking of the entire organization much more easily and quickly. I am convinced that the breakthroughs in medical imaging we achieved in those years started with those interviews.
Recognition of the past, and a respect for those who came before, is necessary to gain followership; and without strong followership change is much more difficult. But how long do you spend gaining respect and reviewing the situation before triggering change? Your sponsors expect results, and fast! You may have been hired to drive change. The pressure may be high to act. As you might expect, how long you wait depends and many factors. When I come into a new role, I have a practice that has served me well for 30 years. I study the situation, meet the people, develop relationships and keep my private notes about what I see. I write down what I think should be implemented, but I don’t act right away. I may not even discuss my observations except privately with my primary sponsor. There is a sweet-spot in time to act; if you act too soon, you may not have the knowledge and the followership for success. You are naïve, and may take the organization in a wrong direction. But, if you wait too long to act, you will become convinced like everyone else that change is not possible, or worse, that nothing should change. You become part of the problem.
Take time to recognize the past, to understand the current situation, to respect those who have come before you. But don’t wait too long.
More of my Ten Tenets of Change Management are coming soon.
 See for example Beer, M., Eisenstat, R. and Spector, B., “Why Change Programs Don’t Produce Change”, Harvard Business Review, Nov/Dec 1990 and from Kotter, John P., “Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail”, Harvard Business Review, Jan 2007