Leadership Series: Solving the Change Management Enigma
I have two beliefs about driving change that seem at odds 1) If you want to think outside the box, hire people that have never seen the box. Simply- innovation is easier for people not mired in the past. 2) Cleaning house to drive change slows you down. Yeah- it’s an enigma. It’s time to sort this out.
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to take over a red program. The Government was frustrated with the contract leadership. As a result, the staff was confused and tentative. The company was struggling with blowing things up or weathering the storm. I was essentially unknown to the workforce and customer. I can’t say the approach below is “the” way to do it; only that it worked in this case and did so quickly. Here were the main tenants.
1. First two weeks were gathering expectations from the customers and my bosses. I had to set a baseline of how much time I had before I would get fired. During this time, my direct reports were nervous and jockeying to be heard. I limited it as much as possible without alienating them.
2. Next 2 weeks, I started meeting with direct reports and opened the dialog to let other team members bring ideas. I used the customer/boss insights from the first 2 weeks to vet the ideas coming in. I could tell quickly who had a pulse on the issues and who was mired in the past.
3. Then I announced that every leadership position would be competed. My promise was to complete the task quickly. It made no sense to keep people in limbo for longer than needs be. As such, I laid out an aggressive schedule of a few weeks. Honestly, at that point, people were already complaining about me for not listening. They were nervous about their jobs- It wasn’t personal. They just needed closure on what was coming. The tight schedule also showed the customer change was coming.
4. It was time to build a team that was right for the problem.
a. Change requires people to move in a new direction. I needed some people who had built up trust with the employees over time to communicate and help the team along. As such, I knew I needed to keep some of the leadership team.
b. On the other hand, we needed new ideas and disruptively loud voices to challenge the current thinking. These people would question the processes by nature and create new opportunities. Many of these would be outsiders, but I also found a few on the program that were dying for a chance to lead.
c. Finally, for highest impact, the change agents must be aligned with projects that would force others to adapt and accept change. I put the most aggressive in central jobs that touched many parts of the program.
In about a month, the new team was in place and the storming phase began. Those first few strategy and staff meetings were fascinating. The progressive newbies pushed hard and met some resistance though not as much as you’d expect because everyone understood the customer was angry. The dialog was always productive and I was there to referee when it wasn’t. The key was balance between blowing things up and what was realistic. Because I hired aggressive newbies into central roles, I didn’t have to drive the dialog. Doing so would have made me look biased. Instead, I could hear it all and make an informed decision. All ideas and risks got their day in court with a decision.
By blending people who had never seen the box and those folks who were trusted and knew the challenges, we created a tension that forced movement, challenged past practices, avoided dumb mistakes, and most importantly, leveraged years of trust built up. Both parties were critical. Neither would have succeeded without the other. Change happened because they balanced each other.