How to lead change when you don't have a clear view of the future state.
Early in my change career, my boss, my colleagues, and I were learning the art and science of change work by absorbing everything we could get our hands on. We poured over books together to see what we could glean that was relevant to our current business problems and applied the concepts right away. We were learning like crazy. It was energizing because we knew we had to get it right. Our reputations depended on it. A lot of people were depending on us.
At the time, most of the advice we were taking in was about getting from current state to future state, point A to point B. The goal was to have a clear articulation of both, examine the difference, then dive in to close the gap. All great concepts, but we quickly ran into a brick wall.
My boss was spending a huge amount of energy and time to get our senior leaders to articulate "B". It was exasperating for her. Over and over again, she'd come back to the team feeling like she was no closer to understanding the future state. We were at a loss! How could we do our work without "B!"
Perhaps we took this idea too literally. Perhaps that was a reflection of our inexperience. Experience over decades and through a wide variety of change work helped me to let go of the need for a clear “B” future state and instead focus on the direction. In fact, I don’t believe there is a “B”, at least not the way I understood it then. It’s a phantom that can take a life of its own. Worse, it can be an excuse for not moving forward and a source of friction or even the cause of a rift between people.
Here’s what I’ve long believed since then: You need to have an idea of where you're going and why. It needs to rooted in your values and the drivers of your business. It needs to be compelling to you because it's going to get hard sometimes. And you need to be okay with what you don't know yet so much so that you'd be comfortable telling others what you don't know yet. You also need to be prepared to learn your way forward because as you embark on your change you will be actively learning and making adjustments to your implementation strategy or even the change goal itself!
Here's the difference: Rather than putting pressure on yourself to create a beautiful articulation of a future Nirvana, instead say where you want to go and why and what you're willing to do and learn to get there. Being that honest is something people can get behind and trust.
This is risky, I get it. What if you're wrong about the future you imagine? What if people constantly pepper you with questions you can't answer?
Here's some simple advice on that...
First, take care of yourself because that matters a lot to your decision-making and the way you interact with people. When an organization feels stress, people will pay attention and notice your energy and they will respond to it.
Second, set up a process to learn how the change is progressing:
This does not need to be complicated. What you're doing is setting up a learning process in an intentional way so you can make practical decisions. This is particularly useful when you need to lead change with your company's leaders and managers.
So what does this have to do with joy at work? Part of what people say joy at work means to them is finding connection to the mission of the company. When you communicate the direction you want to take and why, you start to involve the whole company in the process. They feel invited to participate and start to see how they can help make your vision happen. That kind of empowerment is meaningful to people. It's their contribution to creating something in the world. That's joy at work.
So, our advice is not to worry about "B." Just get clear about what you want, set yourself up to actively learn your way forward and engage trusted advisors to help you see. Focus on your goal and be open and flexible to the way you get there. By articulating where you want to go and why to the people that work for you, you’re on your way to achieving the future you have in mind.
When you want to change and shear force of will fails you then get some outside help.
Written by Roxanne Brown.
There are lots of times when I’ve thought (exasperated), why can’t I do anything about this?!
I read endlessly about change. I’ve advised countless executives and practitioners on the ways and means of getting change done. I’m constantly thinking and talking about it. No kidding, I’m oddly fascinated and adore the subject.
And yet when it comes to some things I work on personally, it just doesn’t matter how much I know. So frustrating!
My conclusion? Sometimes you just need a little outside help to get what you want. I know, I know, not particularly insightful and a little self-serving. Definitely not my intent!
What I can share that may be of use to you are a few resources that can help -- the things I turn to when I’m working on something I really, really want. So, here you go…
A tool of my own:
Sending best wishes for getting what you want most this year!
A useful example of change leadership.
Written by Roxanne Brown.
We've all been there. You've been given a task you don't believe in, or you have to make a decision you hate making, or a combination of the two. So what do you do when you have to lead a change you don't like?
Well, the first thing to do is get your mind right. Now is the time to ask yourself what's bothering you about this change? Were you taken by surprise? Did you have completely different expectations? Do you fundamentally disagree with the decision? Is your ego getting in the way? What is it? Put some self-reflection time in to understand why you're not onboard. This self-awareness is useful for managing your mood.
Now think about your people, the people you need to lead through this, the people that are impacted by this change. How do you expect they'll react and why? How surprised are they likely to be? What will they need to understand? What support will they need? Start deciding how you will communicate the change and how you will invest in supporting your people.
Now try some visioning. How do you want this to go, ideally? For you and for your people. Imagine the ideal. Why? Because even though you don't have complete control, you do, in fact, have a significant amount of control over how the change is experienced. You control your own experience of the change, and you certainly have significant influence on how your people will experience the change.
Let me zoom in on this for 30 seconds: If you think the change will be hard then it will be. If you think your people won't like the change because people don't like change, then, as the leader, you've pretty much sealed their fate. If you expect (and decide) it's going to be bad, there is no doubt that it absolutely will be. It will meet your expectations.
If, on the other hand, you decide your experience of the change could be how you envision it ideally, then you've got a much better shot at something great. And, if you envision it ideally for your people, then they have a shot at something better too. Let's just say this: People have thanked me for how a difficult change was handled, a change that had a huge impact on their lives, and that's largely because I started by envisioning the ideal for them and then worked hard to figure out how to make that happen. You can do this. It's hard, but it's worth it.
Here are some constructive tactics:
1. Take stock of what you're most concerned about. Ask yourself, what's the worst that can happen? What would happen if you didn't make this change? What would be the impact in six months or a year? What positive actions can you take to prevent the worst from happening? What could you do to create a positive outcome? Dale Carnegie writes about this in his book "How to Stop Worrying and Start Living" -- if you have the book, see chapter 4, How to Analyze and Solve Worry Problems, for a useful exercise. Another great exercise comes from TED Talk presenter Tim Ferriss: Why you should define your fears instead of your goals. Here's a tool to help you clarify your concerns.
2. Decide how your going to show up for your people everyday. Your people are tuned into you, like or not. Your behavior and words send signals all the time about what's important and how things are going. If you're worried, chances are they've picked up on that and they're worried too. My friend Mark Becker (a change expert) always says it's important to check in on your emotions when you're leading a difficult change. He suggests that, for example, on your commute or your walk from the car to your place of business ask yourself how you feel right then. Ask yourself, how do you need to show up for your people? Then make the decision to act accordingly. Remember who you are -- their leader -- and then act accordingly.
3. Start executing strategies to take care of yourself. You're under stress, you need to help yourself manage that. No kidding, don't discount this. How you feel will come across and will only bring you more stress if you ignore it. People around you will suffer because you impact the people in your world. You matter, you are important. Take care of yourself.
4. Get help from a coach, trusted advisor, or mentor to keep you going. Find someone that can be a safe place to talk though what's on your mind, to vent and get perspective. Make it a regular thing. That periodic emotional release will help you find your inner-calm and focus back on what matters most.
This is not an easy thing to do, but you can do this. Once you decide to lead this change well, my bet is you'll already be halfway there.
My inspiration: Back in September 2016 I led a 3-day change management course for a group of HR professionals working for non-profit organizations in foreign countries. Given my heavy corporate experience, needless to say, it was a departure from my usual audience. It was awesome because it was a chance to translate my change management methodology into something that could be universally applied. At one point one of the participants asked what she should do if she didn't believe in the change. Such a fundamental, universal question, and I hadn't covered it! It was good to be reminded that this is a struggle every leader faces sooner or later, and often more than once. It's just part of the deal. The thoughts in this blog are what what I shared in the course.
Reflections on a 20+ year career in change work.
Written by Roxanne Brown.
When I first met you my life at work was in turmoil. At the office, people standing feet away from each other wouldn’t acknowledge each other. It was like they didn’t know how so they just filtered each other out. People decided to keep to their friends now that our company had bought a long-standing competitor. There were new people. Worse than that, the new people were the enemy. They were our competition that for years we battled against for clients, awards, big business. We knew them by name and by sight and now they were in our office. They were supposed to be one of us now. How strange it all felt. The new people acted like they were in a foreign land, looking stunned, trying to adjust. It was beyond awkward. I retreated to my office to escape the pressure of those interactions. The rooms and hallways were dense with emotion pressing everything downward. Lots of slumped shoulders, lots of gazes to the floor, just a weight. A merger announced one day and with that all of the joy was sucked right out of our team.
Then I met you. It was in a class I signed up for at school. Change Leadership, it was called. That’s where I discovered you. I had no idea what I was in for. Every week a little more was revealed about you. Each lecture, each reading. The implications of you were incredible to me. It meant people didn’t need to be the victims of inevitable changes that come to the workplace. It meant they could be guided through it, even choose how they wanted to experience it. THEY could be given control of their experience. YOU could do that for them. Incredible.
And, that wasn’t all of it. It was better for the company they worked for too! People adjusted faster, were less distracted, were more productive and resilient. Fascinating! When I finally grasped all that you had to offer I remember thinking I had discovered something precious. Something everyone should know about. Why wasn’t everyone doing this, I thought? That was you, CM.
Bit by bit what was happening at work became clearer. Now I could be compassionate and say what needed to be said. Put words to what was happening. I could try to help us make sense of the transition. You helped me try. I was hooked.
Seventeen years later my commitment to you is impenetrable. Yes, there was a time in the early days when I wondered if this was really a career. Many said I was crazy to pursue you. You won’t last, they said. They said you were too this or not enough that. But I studied you, I persisted, I experimented. I insisted on doing the work and I insisted you were real. I was right.
Some have quipped that it’s too bad the word “Management” is in your name. It’s true, it’s not a dynamic word and does have some negative associations but so does “Change”, frankly. I’ve heard all of the criticisms and, oddly, I feel immune to them now. I’ve earned my point of view. I know the feeling when you’re present and when you’re not present. That’s all the resolve I need.
I could have pursued many other professions. Before you I certainly did. But once you came into my life I knew you were for me. I think like you. I feel empathy through you. I’ve served countless people through difficult situations with dignity and respect because of you. I’ve also helped people discover and create the culture they longed for because of you.
You have brought my life joy and meaning in ways I hadn’t expected. To see the sudden light in people when they realize all you have to offer and that they can do it too. It’s incredibly satisfying. Over and over I’ve witnessed it. It doesn’t get old.
And, your beauty is always evolving. It’s a delight to discover how you adapt to new scenarios and ways of work. Learning is the essence of you.
Not a clear career path? Maybe so. But you have given me a career I feel deeply aligned to and that makes me brave every day, in service to others and for something much bigger than me. Clear or not, for that you are absolutely worth it.
With love and gratitude,
My Inspiration: Last week TJ Rinoski gave a presentation to a group at Gather about the launch of his new magazine Skinny Dipper that's a long-time collaboration / labor-of-love project, years in the making. It's a work of art. Each issue is created with the intention that it be kept, even displayed. During his presentation he talked about it being a love letter to the variety of media art they love. Hmmm..., I thought (made a note). The way he talks about it is inspiring and endearing. Clearly he and his friends care a lot about this thing. The big launch was yesterday. We ordered our copy today.
How to influence workplace politics for better outcomes, both long- and short-term.
Written by Roxanne Brown.
There’s tension in the room. What’s happening here? An executive asks a question and the guest speaker answers. But then the speaker clears his throat. Or maybe he glanced to the side. Whatever he did, it was a sign to dig deeper. Maybe weakness. The rest jumped in with the inevitable attack. This had become standard. The preferred way to behave. Looking for something or someone to blame or some elusive answer to solve everything that had gone wrong over the last six months.
The woman in charge of this weekly executive check-in intervened. She took over the conversation, purposely, so they would focus on her and not the guest. Partially to protect the speaker, but mostly to get their focus on track. “Aren’t we here to make decisions?” To her, the purpose of the conversation seemed pretty straightforward. But it never was. There was danger. It was palpable. Unnamed and unclaimed but real.
People remember moments like this because they are emotionally charged. These moments stand out. Everyone is in hyper-self-protection mode. It’s a time to be clever. Careful. The possibility of changing the behavior of a group like this seems impossible. Just blow up the whole group and start over, that’s one solution. But that’s often just a fantasy. You’re stuck with who you’re stuck with. You can just live with it and wait for the pain to end one day. You could abandon the whole situation by finding another place to go for yourself. There are options.
Can anything be done constructively here?
What if you reimagined the whole thing? What if.....you suspended reality for a moment and imagined how you’d like this group to be? What would you imagine? How would it feel ideally in those meetings?
Having trouble with that thought? Understandable. Once you have a fear-charged memory conjured up it’s hard to replace it with something ideal.
Try this...take a breath and give yourself a moment to clear out that fear. Now...think about the best experience you’ve ever had leading a meeting or leading a team or working with a group of senior executives. What was that like? Okay, time to write some things down -- write down all of the adjectives that come to mind. Just keep writing and writing until you run out of adjectives.
Look at what you’ve written then ask yourself, what made it that way? What was happening? Write down what was happening. Again, keep writing and writing.
Then ask yourself, what did you accomplish because of all that was happening? Write down what you accomplished.
Now, sit back and look at it all. You have this great experience inside you. You know what’s possible because you’ve experienced it. It’s your story, not someone else’s.
Now that you're looking at what you’ve written and remember, ask yourself, what one or two things would I like to apply to the emotionally charged, fearful situation? What would it be like if that could happen? Picture it in your mind.
With that in mind, write down what success would look like for the current situation by completing this sentence, “I’ll know we’re truly working together toward successful outcomes when…” Write down as many thoughts come to mind for completing the sentence. This is what success looks like for you!
Now comes the hard part: The question to ask next is, what must be true to make this happen? This is when it’s time to be really honest with yourself. What do you need to change to make this happen? How do you need to be different? How do you need to think differently about all of the players? And, who’s help is critical to make this vision happen?
There are people to enlist to help you change what’s happening. More often than not you’ll find others want that too. If you are the leader of the group, you have a legitimate position to work from and others will be happy for your willingness to lead the group to a different place. If you aren’t the leader you can still have an influence. Just your presence, how you think about all of the players and holding your vision in your mind can have a positive effect.
There’s much more to do, but this is a solid start. A shift in your thinking alone will cause a shift in others. Things might start happening that surprise you. Your best bet is to be open to surprises. Look for them. Step in when they happen. Hold that vision while being open. Involve others. Pay attention to the negative but filter out what’s not constructive.
We know that work is what you make of it. Of course, it’s hard to remember that when you’re in the middle of the day, week, year packed with work responsibilities. The question is, now that you remember, what’s possible? Even more importantly, what are you going to do?
My Inspiration: Back in 2012 Daryl Conner interviewed lecturer and writer Peter Meyer. It was a fascinating discussion about the difference between using fear or attraction to bring about change. He also shared a practical, step-by-step approach to using attraction. I've been applying some form of his approach ever since. Thanks, Peter! Thanks, Daryl!
As a takeaway, use this and see our Self-Service Tools page for helpful resources.