Lead Change, Or Get Out Of The Way

John T. Mason, Founder, OakHorn Solutions (Former CIO, Hill Country Memorial)

As a leader, change is both inevitable and necessary. Our teams and our organizations look to us to encourage and facilitate change. Change is what keeps a business viable and able to handle the inevitable fluctuations in the industries and markets we work in. Without change, we are destined to obscurity.

So what makes change so hard? We all know it’s unavoidable, yet we find that managing change and overcoming resistance to it is almost a full time job. The status quo is a powerful state of being. We like comfort, consistency and predictability.

In their seminal book on change — Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard — authors Chip and Dan Heath describe the three areas that a leader needs to influence to effect change on an individual or an organization: the situation, the heart, and the mind. And, rightly so, they say that “often the heart and mind disagree. Fervently.”

When this happens, the heart often wins, and people become frozen. A large number of consultancies such as McKinsey & Company and IBM have found that project failure rates are extremely high, with much of it attributed to resistance to change. One study suggested that 75 percent of project managers expect their project to fail! While I agree with this in general, I think there is an easily overlooked reason that isn’t often cited. Leadership resistance.

While easy to blame the team member for their lack of willingness to change, it’s not always that simple. If the leaders themselves aren’t even convinced at the outset that an initiative will be successful, how can they expect the organization to buy in? Leadership’s attitude toward change has more influence on its success or failure of change than any program or process could ever have. As a leader, you have to be willing to be the example, work through your own internal resistance, and be the real change agent. If you are starting out with the attitude that things will fail, it’s a certainty.

As a leader, what can do you to change your attitude? Here are some suggestions.

  1. Be honest with yourself. If your mind tells you something can’t be done, you’re likely portraying that outwardly, whether you realize it or not. Most leaders don’t have great ‘poker faces,’ and their bodies, facial expressions and demeanor betray their mind. Being honest about how you feel is the first step toward change.
  2. Determine where the resistance is coming from. We’re more inclined to believe that change will fail if we have experienced failure in the past, a phenomenon known as the Availability Heuristic. This is even truer if the most recent project or change initiative we were involved with didn’t go well.
  3. Reevaluate the facts. It’s important to relook at the facts with a fresh perspective. If your last change didn’t go well, ask yourself what people, processes or technologies led to the failure, and whether the same factors will be in play the next time around. If so, what can be done to ensure they don’t get in the way again? It’s also important that you ask yourself what impact you had on the prior failure. Were you as involved as you should have been? Did you help make sure the environment for change was established well, and the team had what they needed to succeed? If not, figure out what you need to change.
  4. Evaluate your commitment. To be effective in change initiatives, it might require some real introspection if there are nagging doubts about the success. If the commitment to success isn’t there, a leader needs to step aside or find someone who is more motivated to take the lead. A leader who is a barrier to change is like a leaky dam. Eventually the pressure to change will become too great, and things will go around you, over you, or cause you to burst.

Having been involved in projects for many years, I have seen many fall prey to the negative attitude of the leader. Whether it’s the business customer who’s sure that ‘IT’ will not deliver, or a Project Manager who has been tainted by bad experiences, the failure rate can truly be high. But, it doesn’t have to be.

What are some things you can do to ensure that this next project will be a success? How can you hold yourself accountable to being positive about the change, and seeing it through to completion?

  1. Set Personal Goals. Even if you can’t commit to a perfect attitude and cheery demeanor, you can at least set some realistic goals for completion, and meet them. Much like exercise, it’s not always easy when you start out, and getting up before the sun comes up to go run takes some guts and determination. But, over time, you get used to it, and will find you actually miss the exercise. The same thing goes for leading change. Every day isn’t going to be a bed of roses, but if you stick with it, you just might re-energize and look forward to the challenge.
  2. Find someone to hold you accountable. Actually, I would suggest you have two people in mind. One should be a peer that you can vent to. They should be able to recognize when you’re not doing well and call you out on it. We all need accountability. The other should be someone working on the project who you can turn to for feedback. Some of the most effective feedback I ever get is from folks on my team that I trust as sounding boards.
  3. Find your biggest detractor, and make friends. Let’s be honest. Most change is made hard by just a few people. They are the ones who just seem to want to disrupt anything you’re doing. They hate change. They hate being asked to change. And most of all, they feel like it’s their responsibility to make sure the change doesn’t happen. It’s almost as if they see themselves as the ‘guardian’ of the status quo. This is the person you need to make friends with. Once you see a change in their attitude, it will make a huge difference.
  4. Create a cause. Even if you can’t get behind a change personally, there’s always someone who will benefit from it. Remember, as a leader, your job isn’t to do what’s best for you. Your job is to do what’s best for the team or organization. In fact, more times than not, what’s best for the organization will not provide you any real benefit. So pull on your boots and go fight for the ones who will benefit.

Change is hard. Leadership can be hard. Combining them both makes for some difficult days. But, your job as a leader is to drive through the difficulties, find ways ahead, and make change that benefits the organization. If you can’t do that, you aren’t earning your pay.

[This piece was originally published on John T. Mason’s blog page. To view the original post, click here. Follow him on Twitter at @jtmasoniv.]

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