Leadership’s Role in Driving Change Management: Part III

PART THREE: The Principles

Continuing our series on leadership’s role in engineering and construction implementations, part three will focus on some fundamental principles leadership should apply to ensure success.

If sound physics states that force equals mass times velocity, it shouldn’t matter who is measuring the force, or what day it is for that matter. Those factors aren’t part of the rules of physics, and they shouldn’t produce any variance on the outcome. At many levels of an organization (including the executive level), much of what passes for absolute statements of truth are actually situational statements of opinion. A key litmus test for this is if it depends on who’s acting. It’s wrong when they do it, right when we do it. Which means it’s opinion, not a basic principle. Experience clearly points out that organizations and systems are more reliable, more efficient and more professional when they’re operated on principles that are actually true.

The following list of guiding principles can help leadership better prepare their organization to manage the deep waters of business and technology transformation in a systematic way.

Sponsor and lead the change with the culture of the organization.

All too often we have heard the statement “culture is everything,” and rightfully so. It has proven time and again that the organization’s culture is critical to the success of effectively/efficiently managing change. In fact, research states that in most cases it’s more critical than strategy or operating model. Yet, looking in the rear-view mirror leaders often leave culture to middle-management — failing to properly endorse those responsible for overcoming cultural resistance or making the most of cultural support.

When working with leaders on building their “executive survival kit,” one of the first things “in the box” is taking into account the existing organizational and team culture when designing change transformation efforts. Keep in mind that each employee, customer, and vendor approach change from strictly past experiences and perceptions. Assuming upfront that culture and relationships will be malleable enough to adapt without requiring explicit attention is shortsighted at best. Skilled leaders, conscious of organizational change management best practices, always make the most of their company’s existing culture. Culture can be “read,” providing a baseline language that allows for immediate detection of anomalies…in essence allowing one to know what people are going to do before they do it.

In the lexicon of the Armed Forces, there is a powerful concept called “left of bang.” Left of bang is a metaphor for preventing the attack, the first shot, the explosion, etc. By reading and understanding the environment, you are able to respond faster than those around you. Think about an attack on a timeline — bang is in the middle. Bang is the act, the IED explosion, or the beginning of an ambush. Bang is what troops want to prevent. Being left of bang means that a person has observed one of the pre-event indicators, one of the warning signs that must occur earlier on the timeline for the bang to happen.

Being on the other end of the timeline is referred to as being right of bang. When a person is right of bang, they are reacting to the action that took place. All too often I’m called into projects when they are “right of bang” — after they are in the “red,” have missed milestones, or have gone over budget. And, it’s of no surprise that I find there are/were many signs along away that if addressed would have prevented chaos — and if the proper OCM efforts would have been made up front much pain and cost would have been avoided. Sponsoring change through culture provides the patterns that help to form a faster understanding of the intentions of both an individual and a group’s before they act.

Significant change (and training, for that matter) necessarily needs to start and grow from strong roots at the top.

It’s conventional wisdom that employees are engaged early in the project cycle. And, that all successful change management efforts are owned and start at the top, with a committed and well-aligned executive leadership group. Yet, all too often “alignment” is left limited to just deciding which modules will be implemented or scope concerns. True change and project alignment can’t be taken for granted. Rather, work must be done in advance to ensure that everyone agrees about the drivers for the change, how to articulate the “burning platform,” a clear decision/escalation process, a solid set of guiding principles, and the particulars for implementing all this.

I was called into a project that was already in the build phase, yet was slipping on milestones and experiencing a lot of churn within the teams. This project was a classic example of the outcomes of poor alignment. I first conducted a short alignment survey with the key stakeholders as a baseline for re-aligning the project. I then gathered the executive leadership group (which happened to also be the project’s steering committee) for an ad-hoc meeting to conduct a rigorous exercise in alignment. The meeting consisted of a series of structured and methodical “exercises,” including a leadership effectiveness assessment, which revealed that though these leaders believed they were aligned as a team, they were not operating that way. Rather, they were simply bringing the silo operations of their organizations/departments to the leadership level, and characteristically enabling the organizational dysfunctions that the project was intended to thwart.

The design of the workshop was demanding, yet the leadership team rapidly began to coalesce around a coherent vision for leading the project — how to effectively endorse, communicate, and support those who are charged in making the change. Most importantly, the experience of working together so intensely led the executives, for once, to act as a collaborative and committed team. By the end of the workshop meeting, they found that they were all using the same language to describe what the direction and what the organization needed to do. As one leader noted to me, the experience had “transformed the team,” which in turn provided confidence that together they could cascade the plan to the teams and departments at other levels of the hierarchy.

Involve change agents from every layer.

A common mistake for executives is to fail to take into account the extent to which midlevel and frontline stakeholders make or break a change initiative. All too often the initial visions of leadership don’t translate into the intended results. One reason is that despite the rhetoric that would suggest otherwise, many important projects are engaged by decision makers with less sense of ROI responsibility than is healthy or appropriate. This is evidenced most often by leaders displaying only marginal resolve toward properly involving and endorsing stakeholders at different levels within the organization.

As research has pointed out extensively over the years, decision makers carry a naiveté about what is required on the organization’s part for a major initiative to succeed. They often inaccurately assume that the burden of accountability for achieving their goals falls on internal staff or external consultants. Although consultants are expected to deliver sound recommendations and internal staff can play key supporting roles, it is the decision makers who carry the greatest obligation for success. They are the ones who must ensure that the surrounding human landscape is ready to support what needs to happen. This becomes an arduous process without the involvement of midlevel and frontline agents.

Frontline people tend to be rich repositories of knowledge about where potential impacts and fail-points may occur, what technical, logistical, and process issues need to be addressed, and how customers may be impacted by the changes. In addition, bought-in engagement can smooth the way for complex change and projects, whereas their resistance will make implementing or upgrading new systems an ongoing challenge.

It’s imperative that executives don’t fall into the trap of pushing off early engagement at multiple levels of the organization, believing the process will be more efficient if fewer people are involved in planning. Yet although it may add time in the beginning, ensuring strategic broad involvement saves untold headaches later on. You will surface more and higher quality information, and your teams will be more invested because they’ve had a hand in developing the plan.

In part four we will conclude the key principles of change management.