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How to lead people in embracing change

Even as many organisations continue asking for help with teambuilding, more recently change management has also gone mainstream. While the massive Covid disruption has brought change yet further front and centre, even before the pandemic spread around the world, the 21st century VUCA phenomenon of Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity had confirmed constant change as the new normal.

Let us also acknowledge though that this century is certainly not when change first confronted humanity. It was back in 500 BC when the Greek philosopher Heraclitus pointed out that “change is the only constant” – and so it has been, both before and since. Those who assume that changes will be but temporary, or that they will happen without having to manage their consequences sensitively and positively, will surely come to regret behaving like the proverbial ostrich with its head buried in the sand.

So in this article I’ll share something of what I have learned through my work in helping organisations of all kinds with their change management initiatives – including in these last months through some online engagements.

First, we must “start with the end in mind”. Why is change needed? To enable what vision to be actualised, what purpose to be fulfilled? What is it about the present strategy and way of doing things that will prevent the actualisation of the vision and purpose?

“The way we doing things here” is as good a definition of culture as any… and, as Peter Drucker pointed out, “culture eats strategy for breakfast”. So what is that culture, what are those values, attitudes and behaviours which would overcome dysfunctionalities in the present culture? And given the gaps between the actual and the aspirational way of doing things, what will it take for people to migrate from the one to the other, in the context of the needed strategy?

I say migrate because change management – like teambuilding – is not something that can be achieved simply by going away to one of those nice lodges in Naivasha for a couple of days. Those who take the subject seriously accept that it involves a journey. Yes, the journey can be launched at such an event. Indeed it’s a good way to do so. And crucial to such a launch is spending time towards its end defining specific follow ups as to who must do what and by when.

To take the process from the necessary to the sufficient – which many stop short of doing – the participants must agree on how progress towards living that new needed way is to be assessed. What periodic feedback will be obtained regarding progress, for instance as in: none / a little / a lot / transformational? How will those involved celebrate what will have changed for the better while continuing to work on remaining challenges? And how will the expectation of ongoing continuous improvement feature?

To my surprise, I have come across clients who were planning to undergo a change management initiative separate from their teambuilding one. But discussing the need for teamwork as a critical change enabler with them, they agreed to merge the two into one. They readily accepted that to build a high performance team in this VUCA environment requires the agility to deal with change; and that where change must be handled, building trust between team members is more critical than ever. Yes, team qualities like agility and trust are essential for supporting change.

The most vital dependency for any change programme is positive, authentic leadership at board and senior management levels. Such leaders must visibly own the process and its purpose, and they must be role models for the target behaviour.

Then, given the fear and anxiety the term “change management” often provokes – however justified or otherwise – the question arises as to whether it’s good to call such initiatives by that name.

How can we nudge mindsets from negative emotions to more uplifting ones, as we encourage those involved to learn and to grow, expanding their competencies and their confidence, helping them become more empowered, recognised and motivated?

Such people will see change not as a threat but rather an opportunity, something to be looked forward to with joy and excitement… while accepting that life comes with its challenges and its ups and downs.

Now wonder Heraclitus concluded over two millennia ago that “since the very nature of life is change, to resist this natural flow is to resist the very essence of our existence”.

New world and cultures beckon after pandemic

Much is being written about how the world will look after it has recovered from the coronavirus crisis. We have no idea about so many aspects of our social, economic and political futures, but one thing’s for sure: We won’t simply be going back to the way things were before the virus hit.

The sudden closing down of normal life has forced a dramatic transformation in how individuals, communities and nations conduct themselves. Inevitably, some have adapted much better than others. Not surprisingly, those who are suffering least are disproportionately the ones who were already ahead of the game, thanks to more visionary and agile leadership and more robust cultures. These are the ones who will emerge into the post-Corona era even better positioned.

Almost all of us have been forced to stay away from our normal workplaces and to work from home, relying exclusively on our laptops and phones to communicate. (I have been home-based for several years, so much less has changed for me.) We are using Zoom, Teams, GoToMeeting and other tools through which to hold meetings, deliver presentations, share lessons and so forth; we have rushed to engage more with online shopping and cashless payments; and we have disciplined ourselves to remain adequately structured and productive despite being exposed to far less intimate supervision. Good that employers aren’t fitting CCTV in the homes of their staff!

Which brings me to my point: organisations where there was already a culture of trust – where people have been trustworthy and hence trusted – are the ones for whom remote working is less of an issue. For the natural micromanagers, the ones who feel they need to stand eagle-eyed over their people, this is a really frustrating time as they imagine – rightly or wrongly – that just about everyone will be neglecting their work and enjoying the distractions of life at home.

Some people will indeed disappoint with their performance, abusing the normalisation of flexitime, but there will also be pleasant surprises, with new stars emerging. Look out for such people. Recognise and celebrate them.

Even as many leaders and frontline staff are busier than ever with their crisis management, for others who are less busy now is the time to place more emphasis on the learning they may have been too stretched to undertake before. This is the time to adopt a coaching approach to leadership, encouraging and reassuring one’s people, stretching and empowering them.

It is also the time to flatten the organisational pyramid. I very much related to a recent presentation on “The Future of Work – Lessons from the Pandemic” by the China Europe International Business School, in which they foresee the emergence of more empowered teams, with the ability to be autonomous and agile, and where hierarchies give way “wire-archies.” It is a time when “companies must restructure around people,” they conclude, in a culture where boldness and innovation are encouraged and mistakes expected and allowed.

Another article that caught my eye was by my friend Jayanth Murthy of the Kaizen Institute. He cautions leaders against being ostriches, birds that bury their heads in the sand when frightened and “remember they are big, but can’t fly.” The focus of ostrich-like leaders in times of crisis is purely on cost cutting, by reducing headcount, R&D budgets, marketing spend and suchlike. This can deliver quick results, he acknowledges, but inhibits post-crisis rebound.

Murthy contrasts the ostrich with the albatross. This bird “flies high, but with minimal effort.” It focuses on cutting waste, raising productivity and maximising impact (so very Kaizen). Albatross companies, he writes, expand their ability to find and fix problems, develop their people, improve processes and seek new opportunities to find and fix waste, broken processes and leakages. They get closer to their partners, and build long-lasting relationships with their own team members, customers, within the trade and with suppliers.

So what is the level of trust in your organisation? How do you make a virtue out of the necessity of our present predicament by challenging those around you to be more responsible and reliable, more collaborative and supportive, and of higher integrity?

Be sufficiently optimistic. Be bold. While of course keeping a tight grip on controls and on performance management. You may be pleasantly surprised.