Thursday, March 14, 2013

Four Difficult Truths

There are days when it is uncomfortable to teach people about organizational change and uncomfortable to be their executive coach or consultant. This happens because I have to share with them information that I know they will not like or want to hear. Still, learning this information can make a profound difference in the way they lead people through the world of organizational change.

First, changing peoples’ minds always takes longer than expected.

Recently, I was visiting with a local friend who was in the later stages of remodeling their house. As she showed me around, we entered a small bathroom that had been completely remodeled. She said to me, “This room is so small you can not even change your mind in it.”  I burst out laughing as it was one of the best comments I had heard in ages.

The challenge for many leaders is to recognize that people going through the world of organizational change often have a very limited perspective of what is happening within the organization and within the environment around the organization. This is not their fault. They are focused on doing their job and doing it well. They zoom in on key details and get them done.  

Meanwhile, many leaders zoom out and look holistically at the organization. They see the proverbial big picture and comprehend the technical and adaptive challenges before the whole organization. As a result of this level of understanding and perspective, they initiate change.

And then this level of organizational change is passed on to others who are doing the day to day work of the organization. These individuals who actually have to do the work of changing systems, culture, etc., often do not buy-in to these proposed changes and often do not get it all done. The result is that the leaders are frustrated and the employees are frustrated.  As a consultant and executive coach, I have to point out that changing people’s mind is not an overnight experience. It takes considerable time, communication and listening. It also takes an understanding of the second difficult truth.

Second, most companies are organized to protect status quo.

While many executives will argue with this point and explain to me that they have developed systems for continuos quality improvement and innovation, I often have to re-explain that culture eats strategy for lunch and quality improvement for dinner.  Few people are wired to radically change their lives every day. Most thoroughly enjoy routine. We are, for the most part, creatures of habit. 

Accepting this fact is difficult but helpful when leading people through the world of organizational change. It explains why John Kotter was right so many years ago when he wrote in the Harvard Business Review that creating a sense of urgency that doing nothing is more dangerous than doing something helps people move outside their comfort zone. 

The challenge is that many leaders under communicate this level of urgency. I am constantly coaching executives this winter into spring that they need to deploy the shampoo method of communication, namely “wash, rinse, and repeat.” By having a core message that they stick to for at least 90 days, they will finally break through the status quo mentality and be heard.

Third, most companies initiate long term change with short term leadership.

It is exhausting to observe how many organizations do the above. They want change and they want it now. As a result, they often throw young leaders to the proverbial wolves of organizational change, hoping they will be successful.  It is time we recognize that just filling a slot on the TO does not constitute being a person who has the capacity to lead others through change. We need leaders with the mindset and the skill set to do the long term work. 

Remembering that successful organizational change takes on average 5-7 years, we need to prepare young leaders to become long term leaders and we need to provide them with regular and in-depth coaching which helps them process all that is happening. If we do this, then we have the chance to create effective conditions for successful long term change.

Fourth, most companies want significant change with little to no resistance and conflict.

While this may happen in fiction books and in academic case studies, the reality is that most people do not like change. Instead of embracing change, they focus on what they have to give up. Furthermore, they often feel alone and self-conscious during change. Therefore, they resist change. But what leaders need to know is that they are actually resisting the pain over which they can not control that comes with change. What successful leaders do is reframe resistance and conflict related to change as a form of feedback which contains valuable information.

Being a leader who wants to improve performance within their organization is a great thing. Understanding the above four difficult truths may not be easy but it will be helpful. The key is to work with them rather than against them.

Geery Howe, M.A. Consultant, Executive Coach, Trainer in Leadership, Strategic Planning and Organizational Change Morning Star Associates 319 - 643 - 2257

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