I have been thinking about a retreat I did recently. When the senior team gathered, we explored three key questions. The first one was “How do we grow the number of people who use our services given the current economy?” Those gathered felt they needed a better tag line. I pointed out how their current strategic plan had encountered entropy, the degradation of motion to non-motion. I also explained that they were not structured for growth, just the maintenance of day to day operations.
The second question was “Where do we want to end up?” While this is an interesting question, I explained to them that a better one given the first questions was the following: “What is our definition of success?” What intrigued me was that none of the senior people around the table had a common definition or understanding of success. By now the CEO was bewildered.
The third question was “How do we start changing our culture to not resist change?” Before I let us dive into this subject, I asked those gathered “What was their culture?” and “What should not change about it when they grow?” As they explored these interesting questions, not one of the senior team referenced their mission statement. I thought the CEO was going to have a stroke, because in the pre-meeting to the retreat he told me that the current mission was very important to his team and his company.
There are four mistakes leaders keep making when wanting to initiate change. First, many leaders forget that communicating a vision is not teaching people new behaviors. When communicating a vision, we need to review Marcus Buckingham’s insights in his book, The One Thing You Need to Know ... About Great Managing, Great Leading, and Sustained Individual Success, Free Press, 2005. As he wrote, “To excel as a leader .... You must become adept at calling upon those needs we all share. Our common needs include the need for security, for community, for authority, and for respect, but for you, the leader, the most powerful universal need is our need for clarity. To transform our fear of the unknown into confidence in the future, you must discipline yourself to describe our joint future vividly and precisely. As your skill at this grows, so will our confidence in you.” The key when communicating a vision is to recognize that we must communicate it in a manner that creates clarity, buy-in and understanding. We can not be speaking as though we are only transferring information.
Second, many leaders forget that strategy and short term wins are two very different things. First, strategy is an extensively premeditated, carefully built, long term plan designed to achieve a particular goal. Next, strategy needs to be adaptable by nature due to unforeseen variables rather than presenting a rigid set of instructions or tactics which has the potential to create organizational vulnerability. Finally, the best strategy serves an important function in promoting ongoing evolutionary success.
On the other hand, planned short term wins, not win, are designed to energize change agents, enlighten the pessimists, defuse the cynics, under mine self-serving resistors, and build momentum. The key is to recognize that short term wins must come early and fast. They are visible and meaningful, penetrating emotional defenses by being unambiguous. They also speak to powerful players whose support you need and do not have.
While we develop strategy over time and through robust in-depth dialogue, we also must always create short term wins. We do this through careful planning. John Kotter, author of Leading Change, notes that effective short term wins take place between 6-18 months after change has been initiated and meets the above criteria. Kotter’s research also points out that companies “that experience significant short term wins by 14 - 26 months after the change initiative begins are much more likely to complete the transformation.”
The other key to creating short term wins is the presence of better management. As we know, generating short term wins takes great effort. The problem in achieving them often falls into two categories, either “insufficient management expertise” or “lack of commitment by managers.” Both of these can be improved through in-depth training and effective and regular coaching.
Remember: Communicating a vision is not teaching new behaviors and that strategy and short term wins need to be connected.