A few years after deregulation of the telephone industry I heard the following story. One of the old-line phone companies had not achieved the change results they were going for. They purportedly told a consulting firm, In the old days we were an elephant. We wanted to become a cheetah in the new marketplace; instead we have become an elephant on Slim Fast.
Why does this happen?
The answer is quite simple. Change disrupts people’s lives. Drag it on, and they find themselves adrift in that turbulent, uncertain state. Some hope to wait it out. Some flounder. Some fight it. And some–those who are most capable of changing–take control of their own situations. They find jobs elsewhere.
If you are a mission-driven organization, and your most resilient people are aligned with your mission, they may not be quite as quick to “jump ship.” But even then, they will not tolerate the uncertainty forever. They will find another place to serve your mission, or find another mission they are passionate about supporting.
In either case, what you are left with as you continue to pursue your change is a workforce (and, in the case of nonprofits, possibly even a volunteer force) that becomes less and less capable of supporting your change effort.
What can you do about it?
First a disclaimer: your ability to take some of the following actions may be affected by legal and/or contractual constraints.
If the change is really that important, you don’t want it to drag on forever. Transformational changes can sometimes take years to deliver their promised benefits, especially in larger organizations. But even then, people will see an accelerating momentum as positive, and lagging momentum as a sign of potential failure.
So how do you launch the change and move it forward to keep the momentum going, and to keep the people who will help you do so?
- Be clear about the intent of your change. You need a clear, complete, concise, and compelling expression of that intent.
- Build leadership understanding, commitment, and alignment around that intent. Your leadership team sets the tone for the organization. If they are working at cross-purposes, or are not demonstrating full support for the change, it cannot move forward effectively.
- Identify the “keepers.” Here there are two things that are important to consider. First, who are those who are most resilient, most capable of making the changes that you are pursuing? Second, who are the people that either are now or most likely will be aligned with the new ways of thinking and behaving required by your change initiative?
- Enlist people in the change: (Follow this link to read my post on enlisting people.) Your “keepers” should be among the early people whom you enlist.
- Engage people in the change. If change is a disruption in a person’s expectations, then engaging them in it gives them back a sense of control. When engaging people, be clear about the parameters of the engagement. For example, “I am not asking you whether we should make this change. I do want your help in figuring out how we carry it out successfully in your area of the organization.”
- Keep the change moving forward. Work it!: You don’t become an Olympian by going to the gym twice a week. You don’t succeed at major change by making it a part-time activity. You need to commit your “best and brightest.” You need to make it a focus of your own time, attention, and action as a leader. You need to move it forward as quickly as people can adapt to it. You need to take other things off the plate if they are draining resources (including, but not limited to, time, attention, and adaptation capacity). Don’t wait for consensus; major change doesn’t happen that way. Don’t wait for all the answers; they aren’t there. Don’t expect to get everything right, because you won’t; acknowledge and learn from the mistakes. Don’t expect everyone to get on board, because they won’t; the best thing you can do is to respectfully help those who won’t make the transition get out of the way.
What has worked for you in keeping the right people on board during highly disruptive change? Comment below.