Give Change a Chance from American Management Association 8/05/2010

In today’s world, change is not the exception; it is the rule. In the past, when change did occur, it stuck around for a long time, becoming the new norm for many years. Those days are gone.

Our economic climate has changed, our cost of doing business has changed, and our roles have changed, but sadly, our mindset has not. Many people resist change because they fear that organizations are doing somethingto them rather than for them. The reality is that most changes have nothing to do with you, but have everything to do with how you respond.

Why is change so challenging?
The reason change is difficult for an organization is that it happens on different levels at different times. For example, a telecommunications company decides that it is going to go to market itself as a service provider rather than a product company. To begin, the top leadership (CEO, CFO, and Sales Director) weighs the costs and benefits and decides that the organization will get the best long-term return (ROI) if they make the shift. Now it’s just a matter of informing each VP and rolling it out across the organization, right? Well not exactly. What corporate doesn’t take into account is that there was a time period where they themselves felt resistance to the change.  People at each level of the organization are at different stages of change.

Leadership must determine where people are and address them with a genuine concern for helping them navigate their resistance to change.  Corporate was able to move from resistance to acceptance because the business case for the change was clear and the vision for the future was more powerful if the change is effected.  A simple way to look at this is that hope and vision are greater than resistance to change. In other words, if you can present a solid case for change, help people see why the change is important, and develop a plan, then you will be successful in influencing them to accept the change.

What are the characteristics of a change champion?
The best and most influential executives see change as a chance, as an opportunity to see who will rise to the occasion, who will tow the company line, how the business model and operating model hold up, and a whole lot more. The point is that seasoned, high performing executives look at change as an opportunity to learn and grow. They don’t create a situation where their response to the change becomes more of an issue than the actual change itself.

What factors lead to successful adoption of change?

  • Versatility:  the ability to be adaptive, resilient, and able to leverage and transfer one’s skills to suit different situations.
  • Vision (forward-looking): the ability to anticipate how change will impact people and the business.
  • Volume: how much effort you are willing to put into making the change work for yourself and others. The higher the positive volume of work, the less room there is for noise.
  • Velocity: how quickly you can move toward focusing on the positive impacts of change and start taking action to effect the change.
  • Valuing Development: a desire to help others accept the desirability of change.  It’s not just about you adapting to change; it is about enhancing the organization’s ability to grow through the change.

What can leaders do to facilitate change?
1. Build expectations that change will recur and that it is part of the organization’s natural growth. Ensure that people keep their eye on the ball. By helping people manage their expectations you help buffer the initial impact of change.  Every change is a challenge; changes that come as surprises take longer to stabilize.

2. Be transparent with what you know, what you don’t know, and what you can and can’t reveal. It’s OK to say that you aren’t able to provide more information because of the sensitivity of the situation. The rumors are often much worse than the reality, so offset them by sharing as much as information as possible.

3. Build confidence in the change by talking about how you have seen benefits come from changes, even when you didn’t see it right away. Confidence greases the wheels of change. When confidence is lacking you might as well tell people to stay the same (i.e. you become the rust in the gears).

4. Be aware of resistance.  Remember: resistance is data.  It is information from your colleagues and employees that lets you know they care. In a healthy organization you want people to show some resistance; it shows they have an investment in the organization.  The goal is to help people let go of the status quo for the benefit of the organization. Be sure to respect viewpoints that are different than your viewpoint and find ways to collaborate so that people can that they are a part of the change.

Hope + Vision > Resistance to Change
“An ounce of preparation is worth a pound of treatment”—Ben Franklin

There are three key levers when thinking about what motivates people to navigate change effectively:  hope, vision, and resistance.  The way these three key ingredients work is pretty simple. When you add people’s hope for the future and a vision of how to get there, it is more powerful than the idea of change itself.  Leaders fall into a common trap when they go full speed ahead toward change without first painting a clear picture of a better future brought about by the change. This only increases resistance to the change.

What if you don’t agree with a proposed change?
People often ask me: “What if you don’t believe a change is going to lead to a better outcome?”  My response is to ask the executive to take a piece of paper and write on one side, “Can Control” and on the other side, “Can’t Control.” Then I ask him to list every aspect of the change and put each in one of those two buckets. Now things become much easier; we can focus solely on what we can control.

If you don’t agree with something in the “Can’t Control” box you have to decide if it is the right choice for the organization. If you completely disagree with the decision and it’s out of your control (and assuming the change is legal and ethical), then you need to voice your opinion upward and be a team player and champion the change downward. It does no one any good to tell your direct reports that you don’t agree with the change, but have to follow orders. This is one of the difficult parts of leadership, when you have to place the organization’s needs above your own.

Navigating the V-SEA
People have a need for clarity and direction, especially during transitions. One framework that will be helpful as you clarify the aspects of a change is the “V-SEA” model. V-SEA stands for Vision, Strategy, Execution, and Accountability. Leaders must keep communicating the where, what, why, who, and when of a specific change as they relate to the organization’s future. Especially where there is uncertainty, leaders must always have a future focus and create a sense of always moving forward.

The bottom line is that change takes time and strategy. You can accelerate the process by decreasing the distance between people’s resistance and their acceptance.  Being a champion of change isn’t easy, but in today’s constantly changing world it’s an essential leadership competency.

So give change a chance.  Chances are, you’ll like the results.