When I was nearing the completion of my Masters degree in electrical engineering, I had to make a major life choice about which direction to take my career. I wanted to apply my creativity to improve the lives of other people and I found that opportunity with an innovative semiconductor company in Silicon Valley. This company made chips that could be reconfigured by customers to work in equipment ranging from big iron Internet Routers to cutting edge consumer electronics. Better still, this company was the only one on the planet attempting to build a new product using the precise (and very esoteric) technology that I focused on during graduate school. The stars were aligned and I was on Cloud Nine.
From the title of this chapter, you are probably beginning to guess what happened next. Six months into my tenure as a junior product developer, the company terminated the project and took a $5 million write-down for in-process research and development. Fortunately, it was the late 1990’s, and the organization was growing by leaps and bounds; there were still jobs for all of us. This was my first exposure to an endless string of reorganizations, mergers, divestitures, and new initiatives. In short, it was my first exposure to an endless string of change, which I soon learned was the only constant.
In that first project termination, I felt the rug had been pulled out from beneath me. The technology on which I invested years of blood, sweat, and tears would likely never see the light of day. I briefly feared and distrusted change and nearly signed my soul over to a parking lot headhunter (at the time, headhunters would wait in parking lots trying to recruit anything that moved). However, after a few sleepless nights and many conversations with my supportive wife, I began to view change as opportunity. During the remainder of my career, I have found that the greatest opportunities for rapid professional development and financial growth occur during periods of disruptive change.
As you move from being a great individual contributor to being a great manager, you will shift from being changed to leading change. To be effective, you must embrace the memory of how challenging your first exposure to corporate upheaval was. Draw upon those lessons to guide your team when instituting new initiatives. In the change management framework explored below, you will see that the common thread in fluid change management is empathetically addressing the needs of behaviorally irrational human beings – in other words, people just like you.
Challenge the status quo with a new, positive vision
Getting people to change is hard work. To give you the best odds of becoming a great change manager, it helps to understand the work that earned Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman their Nobel Prize in 2002 for pioneering work in behavioral economics. In a nutshell, Tversky and Kahneman reasoned that people faced with choices involving gains are risk averse and that people faced with choices involving losses are risk loving. In fact, the professors noted that merely framing a logically identical choice as a loss (of lives, of money, etc.) rather than a foregone gain induces most of the human race to take large if not extraordinary risks.
So, how does all this tie back to change management? As a change leader, your job is to inspire people to take action that will by definition move them from their comfortable status quo. If you understand the human propensity for loss aversion, then you realize you have two choices: either to create a ‘burning platform’ or to establish a sense of urgency and motivate people to change.
The first choice is to create a ‘burning platform.’ For example, you can vividly paint of picture of an external threat to your organization which they will logically tie to loss of their own job security. To be effective, individuals must have either underappreciated the severity of the threat or better yet had no prior knowledge of its existence.
Being able to draw attention to the burning platform from which you are speaking will make you a good change manager, but not a great one. If you look around, you will find that its use is pervasive. Motivating people with fear to avoid a loss will get them moving, and fast. However, the quick rush out of the gate carries the expected consequence that the energy behind your change initiative will not last. Thus, limit use of a burning platform to those instances when you need immediate change on an initiative that is short term and low in complexity.
It is far more effective to inspire people with hope than to motivate them with fear. That brings us to the second, superior choice, to establish a sense of urgency for a change initiative. In many loss aversion studies, researchers determined that people require gains to be a factor of two larger than a possible loss. For example, in order to bet and potentially lose $20, Kahneman and Tversky found that people on average require a potential payoff of $40. As a tenacious change manager, this means that, yes, you will need to work twice as hard to paint a positive vision of the future strong enough to induce people to risk their status quo. But, if you succeed, the return is enormous since you will provide nearly limitless fuel to sustain your change initiative.
To accept and ultimately embrace change, people need to motivate themselves on both a rational and emotional level. To appeal to the rational ‘left brain’, your vision should feel achievable and should provide a personal, tangible benefit. Providing a compelling set of facts is a persuasive way to speak to the rational mind.
Seasoned change managers know that rational appeals are only half the battle. To drive successful change, you must also speak to the emotional right brain. The best technique to accomplish that is through storytelling – for example, by creating a vibrant, positive picture of the future. Additionally, you should strive to connect your change initiative to the deep needs of individuals. Though self-interest is a strong motivator, the most powerful approach you can take is sincerely helping people feel they are making the world a better place for themselves, their friends and family, and mankind as a whole.
All this may sound a bit hokey, but you should be able to identify a higher purpose in nearly every professional. In some professions, like medicine and teaching, the higher purpose is obvious. In others, perhaps financial services and consulting, you may have to ask ‘why is that important?’ a few times, but eventually you will get there.
Communicating your new, positive vision that challenges the status quo and inspires change is as important as crafting that vision in the first place. Words alone will not do. You must also show your own commitment to change through your every deed. For starters, a useful best practice is to create a guiding coalition that includes individuals with high positional authority, expertise, and credibility. After all, if the influencers inside your organization do not support your change initiative, then it is doomed before you even start.
Engineer the environment for success
All change initiatives, especially large ones, require careful planning. To engineer the environment for success, you must plan your actions and plan your resources.
Think of building your action plan the way you would build a business plan for a startup company. The key is to script the critical moves with clear, specific direction. This does not mean that you personally need to lead every critical work-stream. Nor does it mean that you need to plan out every step involved. Rather, your mission is to articulate the end vision of what great looks like and to define the crucial milestones along the way. To be a resourceful change manager on large initiatives, you will routinely share and even transfer responsibility. Remember, however, that even though you are sharing leadership, you always retain final accountability.
The actions that truly matter are the ones that require people to do their work differently. To find those actions, you must interview people that are already realizing your end vision. If they do not exist inside your company, go find them in the larger world. Authors Chip and Dan Heath of Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard refer to these people as bright spots. Those individuals and their stories will illuminate the way for others.
Excellent change managers know that little happens by accident. They do not wait for the welcome, unexpected blue bird to land on their shoulder. Instead, they maniacally plan for, generate, and publicize short term wins. This is so important, it bears repeating. Great change managers maniacally plan for, generate, and publicize short term wins. These wins must be unambiguous and directly related to the change effort. By sharing short term wins, you fuel the change effort by showing people that their actions are having an immediate payoff. Assume that people are looking for any reason to jump ship and return to the old status quo; your job is to provide real hope that the tropical island paradise lies just over the horizon.
In addition to action planning, the second component of engineering the environment for success is resource planning. The most obvious feature of this is securing the necessary people, technology, and capital. That is the rational part. As with all elements of change management, there is an emotional component of resource planning. Specifically, great change managers empower broad based action by identifying and systematically removing obstacles to success. At the very least, this will require a careful examination of the processes resident in your organization that may be inconsistent with your vision of the future.
These processes will run the gamut from operations to finance to human resources. For example, if you are an internet retailer and your mission is to transform your customer service, there are many processes that can stand in the way. Do you employ a drop ship model where you receive orders from customers and then forward them to possibly unreliable producers who subsequently directly ship to customers? Is your focus on inventory turns causing you to leave customers frustrated with ‘item sold out’ messages? Are you measuring your customer service professionals on calls handled per minute, forcing them to be curt with customers?
Processes are one resource planning obstacle to success. A second is encouraging people to become more risk taking. Your inspiring, positive vision of the future is a piece of the puzzle. As a great change manager, you will need to align and upgrade the skills of people in the organization to make them comfortable with risk. Again, stories will be a key ally. Nordstrom teems with stories (some true and some urban legend) about sales clerks accepting returns for heavily worn items or items sold by other stores. FedEx and UPS share innumerable stories about package deliveries in extreme conditions. What are your stories of risk taking that align with your change initiative? Find them and shout them from the rooftops.
Returning to the analogy of the startup business plan, you should engineer but not over-engineer for success. Carve out as much time as you can for planning, focusing on the key actions and resources that matter, then execute and iterate. Your plans should remain adaptable to account for the unpredictability of people, technology, and processes.
Make change stick
If you have challenged the status quo with a positive vision and engineered the actions and resources for success, then you are two thirds of the way to being a great change manager. The last requirement is that you master the ability to make change stick.
The most basic way to do this is to periodically remind people of what has already been accomplished. Think of this as an aggregation of the short terms wins that you publicized into a larger picture. It should be a picture that shows where you started, how far you have come, and how much further everyone needs to travel to realize the end goal.
As you probably guessed, there is a deeper emotional requirement here too. Your mission is no less than to upgrade people’s individual identity in a way that anchors new approaches in the culture. For example, ‘I am a hospitality professional that provides people with a clean, comfortable room to sleep in and I work for a company that provides a home away from home.’ Or, ‘I am a consultant that helps people become more productive and I work for a firm that helps productive people to provide a higher standard of living for their families.” The stickiest change builds and reinforces noble purpose at a personal and emotional level.
To excel, you not only must conceive major initiatives but also must architect and continually fuel initiatives for success. Here are the concepts you can immediately apply to be a great change manager:
- Challenge the status quo with a new, positive vision
- Engineer the environment for success
- Make change stick