Change – Underscore or Undermine?

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If you change strategy you must change the way you think.

I recently attended a meeting of the management team for a new department. The new department was created as a result of a one-year change initiative. All attendees came to the new department from other areas of the organization, most working together previously. These weekly meetings are intended for the new team to deal with day-to-day issues arising in the new area. As with any organizational change there are procedural details that weren’t identified during the project and require a policy decision. This is where the rubber meets the road. Every decision this management team makes will either underscore the foundation for the change or undermine the change the organization implemented with great effort.

Think about the environment. Unfortunately, questions have to be responded to and decisions made in a highly charged, dynamic environment. We usually don’t have the luxury of quietly contemplating the direction to take.

In this meeting a crossroad was identified. A decision on approach had to be made, setting a policy. This situation provided an opportunity for developing one of the first policies to come from the new management team. The manager of the area responsible for the new policy participated in the entire change initiative and he was well steeped in the strategies and the reasons for the change. We’ll call the manager Bob. The executive in charge of the new department had less experience with the change project but fully bought in when she decided to take on this new role. We’ll call the executive Donna.

When the issue surfaced, the manager, Bob, laid out two options. Those of us living with the project for a long period of time knew exactly which option promoted the new way. Bob, the manager, knowing the right answer asked Donna, the executive, to render a decision. Donna, although very supportive of the change, to the point of making a risky career move, chose the answer that directly contradicted the strategy change. Making this choice would set a precedent that would tell all employees that the organization did not support the change they just implemented.

Shockingly, Bob responded by saying, “OK, what’s the next item on the agenda?” It was over in about three minutes. A whole year’s effort undermined. How did this happen?

After I stopped the proceedings I asked Donna for the basis of her decision. Her response was that she chose the option that was most consistent with the way people expected the organization to operate. In other words, she was saying that this is the way we’ve always done it.

What about Bob who knew better? Why did he so quickly accept an incorrect answer, even from a superior? Culture? The habit of always deferring to the boss? Not wanting to take responsibility?

Change leadership requires a great deal of courage. Many times the change leader needs to break the standard rules of the organization. Although it’s always nice to have the upper most levels of the organization fully engaged in the change approach this isn’t realistic. There isn’t a conscious effort to undermine the change but lack of knowledge can have that effect. The people leading the details of the change initiative are the most equipped to maintain the discipline required to nurture the change in its infancy.

How can we allow this nurturing to occur?

Advice to the top-level executive team – Be prepared to defer to those who are closer to the details. Ask these change leaders to challenge your way of thinking as decisions are contemplated. Obviously, work out an approach with the change leader that maintains your authority while providing a check on the “way we’ve always done it” thinking.

Advice to the change leader – Don’t let anything get in the way of the success of the change effort you have worked so hard to implement. Look for inconsistencies. Look for anything that appears to undermine the change approach. Work out a deal ahead of time with superiors determining how far you can go in maintaining the discipline necessary to keep on the path, even to the point of working out a signal for public situations.

Leading change shouldn’t stop on implementation day. Be sure the vulnerable change survives in the organization. A change in strategy requires a change in the way people think. The role of the change leader is to support this process until thinking shifts to be consistent with the change in strategy.

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Jim Canterucci

I don't know everything. But I want to. The focus of our firm, Transition Management Advisors, is to develop leadership capabilities to create a championship culture, generate innovation, and successfully lead the resulting changes.

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On June 9, 2008
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