How to lead change when you don't have a clear view of the future state.
Written by Roxanne Brown
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.