There are two distinct sides of change – a mechanical side and a human side. For example, if we were going to move our office to Frankfurt, there would obviously be practical, mechanical considerations. But there would also be a very personal, people-related side to that organisational change.
In my experience, that often gets lost. As a leader of various programmes, projects and initiatives, I try to make sure that both sides of change are recognised and represented.
Problem vs. Opportunity
When it comes to change, there’s either a problem or an opportunity. Sometimes, there are some external events that implore us to act, such as a competitor pushing us to innovate or a change of tide in the marketplace. When it comes to opportunity, we proactively make a decision to do, build, or create something that can achieve a better business outcome. With a problem, you are likely to be reactive, whereas identifying an opportunity likely means being proactive.
Being in a technology role, sometimes you get an imperative that requires you to react to something external and do what you need to do to address it. When it comes to the execution and implementation of the change, I approach my team or my organisation not with the answer to the problem, but with the problem itself.
My first couple of discussions will be just about the problem and then I listen. I’ve found the more I listen, the more successful the team has been at planning and implementing the change. I truly believe the answer is in my team, it’s in the people I work with. It’s not in me, I’m not a superhero.
I’ve seen people appear and say ‘this is the problem and this is the solution, just get it done’. That approach has rarely worked. What does work is to include, from the beginning, the people that are potentially going to be affected or those who will actually have to execute the change.
Asking The Important Questions
That’s where the human side of change really comes into play. The idea of change in a big organisation prompts people to ask questions. How will this affect me? Will my role change? What will happen to my compensation? People personalise the change, and yet may never voice these questions aloud.
People need to feel empowered to say ‘this really doesn’t work for me’. After all, it’s not about work/life balance, it’s about life balance. You’re trying to run your life and work is a very important economic part of it.
Empowerment as a whole is a fascinating thing. Executives stand up all the time and say they want an ‘empowered workforce’ but maybe we should assess whether this verbal reassurance will make their teams feel more empowered or more likely to speak up. In my experience, you need to consistently prove over time that you truly are empowering them. If you step into a new company as a CEO and say ‘you’re all empowered’ – I’m not sure that’s credible.
The journey process needs to be iterative. A musician needs to practice the song or play the piece a couple of times to truly learn what it takes to successfully perform it. A leader can learn how best to implement change by involving everyone in the ‘practice’.
Facing the Challenge of Inertia
It’s these human elements that are part of the inertia within a large organisation. We should always ask: will people be required to change here? To start, I try to understand both the inertia and the desired outcomes of the initiative. Then I try to understand what’s changing on the people side. Does their perceived value change? Does their authority change?
Inertia is one of the biggest barriers when it comes to affecting change in an organisation and one of the best ways to address this is by adopting a bottom-up approach.
When you operate in a bottom-up way, and truly listen to all the things that everybody is doing every day, you can begin to understand what is consuming their work day. I consistently see tension between what’s important and what’s urgent. The amount of seemingly urgent work that comes up for most of us everyday can easily take up the whole day. Taking a bottom-up approach positions a leader to identify opportunities to spend a little bit more time on what’s important.
The Five Whys
Once the ‘what and why’ of the changes have been established, you have to plan ‘how’. Understanding is nice, delivering results is better. That’s where the ‘5x Why’ technique comes in.
A: Why are you walking to work?
B: Because my car is broken down
A: Why is your car broken down?
B: Because I didn’t get it serviced.
A: Why didn’t you get it serviced?
B: Actually, I went on vacation instead.
A: Why did you go on vacation?
B: Because I was so stressed out at work.
Now you’re starting to get to the essence of the problem (and it is not the car). If you take that metaphor into an organisation and you start to ask people the ‘why’ behind a decision, a process flow or a policy, the essence will be revealed.
When it comes to execution, you need a credible plan of getting from point A to point B, mapping out what risks are involved or addressing the issues that you will need to manage. When you’re operating bottom-up, execution plans are far more credible as you’re playing to people’s strengths. You’re not asking anyone to take a risk, you’re asking them to do what they’re really good at.
The Sustain Dimension: Maintaining Change
When we’ve made the change, built the new database or set up the office in Frankfurt, the need to continue to compete and run the business doesn’t stop. The competition doesn’t stop, the products don’t stop coming onto market, so you now need to sustain the new momentum.
But you have to reset the ‘what and why’. Why do we want to incrementally improve this process? And what does that mean for the team? Everything we went through to execute and implement the change, we need to go through to sustain it, with one key difference.
Take distance running for example, it’s not infinite linear progression. No matter how hard you try, you are never going to run a kilometre in 16 seconds. There’s a level you’re going to get to and that’s the best you’re going to achieve. Even in corporations, if you achieve a monetary return for the quarter, you’re not necessarily going to be able to double it. There’s always a limit to things – that’s the key difference.
When trying to sustain change, you need to understand the upper limit. You can’t tell people to perpetually do more and more, just like you can’t run a kilometre in 16 seconds – it’s impossible. But if you can incrementally progress to running a kilometre in 3.5 minutes, you should celebrate the accomplishment and then figure out how to maintain that.
Luke Chilone is a Winter Circle member and Managing Director, Technology at TD Ameritrade.