Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Making the Compelling Case for Change

When the pain of change exceeds the pain of staying the same, change is unlikely. That quote from sales trainer Bill Scheessele has proven true over my 20-plus years as a change initiative leader. Given people's natural resistance to change, it's hard to move them far from the status quo without a compelling reason to do so.

Research by the Harvard Business School found that the number one reason corporate change initiatives fall short is the failure to establish a sense of urgency. Some call this the "burning platform," a crisis or challenging situation that compels change. So your first step as a change leader is to convince people that staying the course will be more uncomfortable than making the change.

In my last post, I outlined six steps to effective corporate change. This post explores the first step--creating a sense of urgency--in more depth. A few pointers to keep in mind: 

Let circumstances drive change, not just internal directives. I've never seen a corporate change initiative succeed that was propelled entirely by management prerogative. The fact that "the boss wants it done this way" is not an effective driver of change in most organizations. A better approach is to leverage an external threat or change that provides a "situational mandate" for change in your firm.

The presence of an external change driver lends greater weight, then, to corresponding management directives. Perhaps the most successful change initiative that I've been part of was launched by a threat from our largest client to cut us off if we didn't improve our safety performance. That got everyone's attention! Then our president drove the point home a few weeks later when he fired two field managers for not adequately supporting our evolving safety process. 

Build a strong consensus within your leadership team. The Harvard research directed by John Kotter found that the second most common reason for unsuccessful change efforts was the failure to create an effective "guiding coalition" among company leaders. This process must start in agreeing on the need for inclusive change.

A common scenario I've seen is this: Company managers agree in concept on the need for change, but some don't see the need for them to change. By their example, they send the message that the expressed reasons for the corporate change are not so compelling after all. There's no quicker way to undermine your change initiative (as I've experienced many times!).

Consensus doesn't mean unanimity. But you must secure what I call a "functional consensus," meaning that the leaders who are most important in guiding change in your firm (your major influencers) are agreed and committed. Likewise, you may need to take steps to neutralize the influence of other leaders who are not fully on board (e.g., reassigning them). 

Personalize the pain of staying the course. It's usually not enough to focus only on how change impacts or benefits the company. Most employees will be more concerned with how it affects them personally. Therefore, you need to make the compelling case at the personal level, as well as at the corporate level.

A good place to start is to probe employee perceptions of the situation. What are they seeing? What are they feeling? Are they making the connection (with reasonable accuracy) between how the company is affected and what it means for them? Understanding what your employees are thinking helps you better communicate the personal risks and benefits associated with the change.

Be sure to translate the company impacts down to the individual level. In the aforementioned example, it was easy to see that losing 40% of our revenue (which is what our top client represented) would exact personal costs through job losses, relocations, reassignments, etc. But often the connection isn't so obvious. How does continued quality problems impact the individual employee? You need to make that clear and compelling. 

Show the evidence. Given our professional affinity for data and facts, I'm sometimes surprised how major corporate decisions are made in A/E firms based more on opinions or preferences than evidence. The problem is--besides the fact that you're more likely to be wrong--that it doesn't sell across the organization.

If you have evidence that forms a compelling reason for change, share it with your employees. If you don't, go find it. While your employees may generally trust your business instincts, when it comes to asking them to buy into a significant change, objective facts are better. Of course, the data don't always add up to a consistent story--especially after they've been twisted to fit different people's narratives. But with some effort, you should be able to find information that supports what your leadership team is seeing--"we'd better make this change, or else."

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