by Adriano Pianesi, author of “Teachable Moments of Leadership”
Whether you embrace change to improve your organizational effectiveness or to pursue “blue ocean” innovation, change is sure to generate unsettling feelings for the person leading it. Behind the scintillating promise of new beginnings, the journey to reach breakthroughs on the other side of the status quo is not always smooth, linear or uneventful. The way forward is not as predictable, its final outcome not as clear as when the journey started.
Yet the life of organizations — as complex systems — depends on embracing change. Staying alive and thriving in a system requires evolving and adapting to inevitable changes in the environment. For organizations, this adaptation looks like new learning and new action. Let me be clear, not adjusting to the external environment or responding to customer trends, competitors, regulators and economic factors is never an option. In other words: evolve, change or become extinct.
Change-savvy, adaptive organizations are successful, because they know how to deal with the not-so-smooth sailing of change. They have not just handled significant change once or twice, they have become one with change and built — over time — a tenacious capacity for its promise and its disequilibrium. Better: they have discovered that their ultimate competitive advantage is now their own capacity to change and to translate what they learn into action rapidly. These organizations thrive because they leverage their key strategic differentiator: learning faster than the competition, and getting into action speedily.
How do you build that capacity for your organization? Turning to the literature on change management helps up to a point: unless you are Jack Welch or a CEO, for the rest of us change initiatives are often still all about long slide shows, “buy-in”, job cuts, and facile rhetoric about being agile and nimble.
Straight from the old school playbook, change initiatives in 2019 are still engineering affairs at best — interspersed with sophisticated PR efforts and expensive event-planning activities — but still unable to reverse this disheartening statistic: 75 percent of organizational change initiatives fail.
Would you go to a doctor who fails 75 percent of the time? The aspiration to shift how we approach organizational change is both heavily researched in academic circles and badly needed for practitioners. So how might we change “how we do change in organizations”? What are contemporary ways to change organizations and turn that change-capacity into a competitive advantage?
I’ve been studying, teaching, learning and trying to answer these questions for the past six years in my Organizational Change Lab, where I have encountered all sorts of situations where change was the necessary component for a company’s success, yet it was either hard to implement, poorly planned, badly communicated or ill-conceived.
What I have learned from my students and from my work as a change consultant can help leaders understand the work of change better and position them to more likely achieve the outcomes they seek.
Understand the problem.
When working with organizations I typically find two kinds of problems: immediately diagnosable issues with applicable solutions and larger-scale problems that are more difficult to diagnose and present a need for change but no identifiable solutions. The second type of problems usually drives organizational change. Understanding these problems means examining them from all angles and shaking off outdated assumptions. During my workshops, I ask leaders to embrace ambiguity, because it will make them think in new ways, and that’s where the truly impactful ideas originate.
Mobilize change on a large scale.
For organizational change to work, the majority of the organization has to be actively involved. The only way to achieve that is to emphasize collaborative thought, even when it might seem difficult. This disruptive approach will eliminate barriers and encourage everyone to voice their opinion, allowing leadership to listen carefully.
Align change with your culture.
Organizations survive through their people, so understanding culture is essential for change-makers. A company’s culture can work against you and your change effort if you don’t pay attention to it. To engage with your people successfully, know how to take the local culture seriously. Or pay a very high price.
Use your influence.
When a change initiative fails, it is often shrugged off with the simple belief that people fear or hate change. But people don’t hate change; they hate loss. Promoting change doesn’t mean forcing people to accept change that makes them uncomfortable. Rather, it means listening to and considering the interests of others. For example, you’re trying to enact a change in HR policy, but you’re getting pushback from the sales team because the policy disrupts one of their best practices. How do you act? First, learn how that policy conflicts with their needs, and then allow that team the opportunity to reach a compromise.
Respond thoughtfully to concerns.
Many organizational change initiatives fail largely because of disengagement, which is a result of a lack of trust and open communication. If employees bring up concerns about a proposed change and they fall on deaf ears, how enthusiastic do you think they’ll be about following through on the change? You must be open to hearing out your counterparts and answering their concerns thoughtfully and respectfully. Even then, opposition to change may still occur. Using your knowledge of the organization and its culture, you can anticipate many objections and set the table for a conversation to get to the real root of the issue.
Craft your roadmap.
How can you instill change in your colleagues if you can’t picture it in your head? To persuade others of the benefits of change, you need to deploy powerful storytelling. The power of an effective narrative will work in two ways: as a tool for bringing audiences to your side, and as a way to understand your own blind spots. In crafting your story, be sure to include the roadmap for how it all comes together. You need to paint a picture of what this change will look like but also what the organization will look like during the transition. You have to give the comfort of certain, concrete plans and a vision for the future.
Organizational change is no easy feat, but new approaches might remove some of the burden. By embracing change as a force for good, you can help make large-scale transitions smoother and keep your organization ready to adapt to the unknown. Eventually, it will happen with or without you — so best to be prepared to be an effective captain of the ship.
Adriano Pianesi is an enthusiastic and emotionally intelligent leadership educator and change consultant with 15 years of management experience. Through Pianesi.com, his consulting practice, he helps managers and leaders in several industries come together to solve tough problems by harnessing the powers of conflict, diversity and complexity. He is the author of “Teachable Moments of Leadership” where he describes a state‐of‐the‐art experiential leadership learning methodology that gets real results. See Adriano’s TEDx TALK here.