Change is optional…so is survival

I was sitting in a change symposium the other night participating in a group discussion around leading change with influence and not authority, when I had an epiphany.  The conversation had been going on for about 40 minutes as I was listening to business owners & senior leaders relate stories about problems they had encountered during change initiatives.  The commonality in all the stories was that the issues that arose were all focused on the change process and not the goal/objective of the effort.

Imagine that you and 3 friends had decided to take a trip to see Toronto to see a concert (I used this example because I did go to Toronto with 3 friends to see a concert earlier this year).  Everyone was excited as none of you had been to Toronto.  Once everyone had committed, you began to send emails back and forth in an effort to settle on the logistics of the trip.  Suddenly, everything went awry!  There was disagreement on who was driving, what the best route was to take, how long you would stay, where you would stay, and whether it was better to leave in the morning or afternoon.  As the discussions continued, the date began to draw closer.  At some point, it became apparent that the trip was not going to happen.  First one person backed out and then the other two suddenly remembered they had prior commitments for that weekend.  Disgusted, you sent the final email putting the idea out of its misery as you muttered under your less than flattering things about your friends.

This is what happens when organizations attempt to change.  The focus of the effort becomes the process of the change and the reason/goal/objective of the effort is lost.  The moral of this story is…“STOP TALKING ABOUT CHANGE AND START TAKING ACTION!” Somewhere along the line, leaders have abandoned their posts and now spend their time doing any/all of the following:

  • worrying about employee morale
  • managing by consensus
  • convincing people that change is a good thing
  • engaging in debate over the minutiae
  • having town hall meetings
  • devising games and rewards for those who participate in the change

Do we really wonder why so many change efforts fail?  Is it hard to figure out why so many businesses are struggling? Let’s be honest, economic downturns are the market’s way of “thinning the herd”.  When things get tough, solid businesses get tougher and poorly run businesses go broke.  I am not trying to hurt anyone’s feelings (if I do, you should not have brought them to work) but this is the cold hard truth.  When money is being freely tossed about and spending is through the roof, anyone can run a successful business.  This is because sales cures all ills and covers up a multitude of managerial errors.  Once business slows down, those who do not really know what they are doing will be exposed for who they are.  This is obviously not 100% accurate but close enough as far as I am concerned.

The same thing applies to change in business.  Change is not new but the pace has certainly picked up.  Successful businesses will continue to adapt and evolve to keep pace while the slow and the weak will be picked off one by one.  We have allowed our focus to be shifted from the destination and are now spending our time discussing what color car we will drive to get there!  If the destination is exciting enough, people will walk if no car is available.

In order to achieve your objectives, try:

  • Taking action before you work out all the details (leadership is about jumping off the cliff and building your parachute on the way down).
  • Admitting you don’t have all the answers…no one does.
  • Changing your mind halfway through a project.  Explain to the people that you make the best decisions you can with the information at your disposal but as you continue to gain additional insights, you reserve the right to change direction if needed.
  • Telling people the truth and allow them to make decisions.  We will all act in our own self-interest and there is nothing wrong with that.  No one should feel bad about it or try to sway someone to decide otherwise.
  • Creating a Big Hairy Audacious Goal (BHAG) that inspires your team to take action in order without regard to a “change”.
  • Giving them someone to follow!

If people are not willing to follow, it is for one of the following reasons:

  1. They don’t believe in you
  2. They don’t believe in the goal

As Jimmy Malone (Sean Connery) asked Eliot Ness (Kevin Costner) in “The Untouchables”, “What are you prepared to do?”

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