A six minute read.
nce upon a time, there were two organizations undergoing significant transformations. One morning, while taking a random walk, a consultant named Goldilocks came across their project plans. She scratched her head in wonder at the dates and timelines, the org charts and communication matrixes, because nothing looked just right.
When launching “improvement efforts” – that is, trying to change something about the organization – executives and
managers often want concrete answers in advance. Understandably risk-averse, they frequently demand, and consultants supply (I am as guilty as any) specific data: “It will take you six weeks to do this”, “You need eight people from these five divisions on a committee that meets twice a month to discuss these six bullet points…”
Worse, leaders read something on the Internet – “Five Things You Must Do Exactly Right” or some such – and believe that there is but one objective way to pursue their Change efforts. Comparing advice uncovers frequently-contradictory “rules”, if taken at face value.
As our titular hero discovered while sampling the Bear family’s porridge, there are many options – but only one that is “Just Right” for the situation.
ABC Company “reacted with urgency”: Lacking patience, the COO announced a big “transformation” and made promises to clients, while the rest of the executive team was still processing the need for change. They moved too fast. XYZ Corp. recognized that moving quickly has great risk, so leaders worked with managers until there was universal agreement for the need to change; to protect morale, XYZ made sure no employee was left behind during implementation. They fell further and further behind. They moved too slow.
When leaders are not aligned with the need for change, they can become defensive and protective of their status quo. Internal squabbling leads to political infighting, and people start actively trying to block change.
Some companies overcompensate by putting effort into ensuring unanimous buy-in. You will see multiple rounds of “change readiness” and subsequent “climate surveys”. You hear phrases such as, “We need to meet them where they’re at.” Defensive and/or stubborn employees receive an inordinate amount of attention to ensure that the message “resonates” with them. Hard, but necessary, choices are softened to reduce friction.
What is “Just Right”?
When a super-majority of leaders, say two-thirds, shares the need to act, it should be safe to proceed. A cross-functional, cross-seniority-level coalition, with actual power, can build agreement among managers and line level employees.
Recognize that less than one-eighth of employees get on board immediately; about a third will remain skeptical until the first sign of success, and three-quarters of the remainder will wait until there is no risk involved (the rest never adapt). This can take years! Focus on that super-majority with leaders and that group of early adopters from the ranks. Proper alignment there provides a core for success.
ABC Company, faced with eroding market position, was willing to “try anything” to reclaim the top spot. In fact, they (over)eagerly tried “everything”: Any seemingly good idea, from product extensions to sales territory redistricting, was thrown into the mix. They were too broad. XYZ Corp. was much more disciplined, and defined its goal in very specific terms. They relentlessly pursued this singular ambition, distracting leaders from changing market conditions – and an employee base losing faith in the effort. They were too narrow.
When facing crises, teams attempt every conceivable solution, believing that, statistically, they will stumble across the right one. These tactics waste resources – peoples’ efforts, dollars, calendar time – and sow frustration. Frequently tossing new ideas into an ongoing effort only confuses people and dilutes its message. (“Are we trying to get our sales team closer to the market, or are we trying to chase the cost-conscious calorie-counting caffeine addict?”) The more added, the less each retains its urgency. “Everything” becomes nothing. This is classic scope creep.
Focusing too narrowly can also presage disaster. Good change agents, like good project managers, set a destination and chart a course. Changing conditions can knock even the best of them off that course, so those with only one path to follow become lost. Bomber pilots are warned of “target fixation”: the more intently they focus on the objective, the more likely they are to ignore their environment – and crash into the target.
What is “Just Right”?
A good charter should articulate the goals (or objectives) of the change, as specifically as possible. This accomplishes three tasks:
- It helps build that “super-majority” crucial for Alignment
- It optimizes the solution (whichever endgame best accomplishes the objectives)
- It provides a course-correction map.
When the proverbial seas change, or competition reacts unpredictably, go back to the objectives and adjust. When “new” ideas are introduced – no matter how great they sound or feel – if they don’t accomplish the objectives, they stay out of the plan. Once the change is implemented, and people begin to settle, then it is safe to (re)open the scope.
Executives at XYZ Corp. read the part above about “Alignment” and created a Steering Committee to guide its change efforts. It represented all functions and levels of the hierarchy: Vice Presidents, regional directors, staff. Managers leading the change reported weekly, seeking guidance for crucial decisions. It was difficult to get everyone on the coalition together (even virtually), so each meeting reviewed and relitigated previous decisions; on the rare occasions when quorum was met, politics and infighting took over. It was too diffuse. ABC Company appointed an Outcome Manager and invested her with discretion and accountability; she had the Board’s complete trust. Every decision ran through her, which became exhausting and stressful, to say nothing of the backlog created. Additionally, employees stopped referring to the upcoming changes by the program name, or even “the Change”, and simply referred to “Trina’s project”. It was so closely associated with her that, once she moved on to another role, all impetus left with her. They were too acute.
Staving off resistance by creating a large, diverse advisory seems brilliantly democratic; it quickly becomes unwieldy and bureaucratic, and, paradoxically, allows Change Resistors to strengthen their own coalition. Spreading accountability too widely reduces individual influence, making it difficult for any one person to see how his actions contribute to the whole.
Centralizing all decision-making authority into a single, autocratic, Change Czar seems to provide both maximum accountability and efficiency. The change effort, though, becomes personality-driven; people will buy in, or not, based on their sympathies towards that one person’s quest.
What is “Just Right”?
A guiding coalition is the smart play, but it should be just that – an advisory body to present diverse viewpoints, hash out contradictory positions, and ultimately support the Change. To avoid descending into bureaucracy, actual decision making should be relegated to a smaller, more agile steering group. As the project continues, members can be added and/or swapped to maintain freshness.
Regardless, its work and decisions should be visible. Employees should know what is being discussed, and who has the answers they need.
Respect the Change
ABC Company had already clearly communicated a goal; soon, executives communicated a date that The Change would go into effect. All efforts were geared toward that Zero-Day (what some soon called “Black Tuesday”). Messaging was clear: there would be Business-As-Usual, then The Change, and then New Business-As-Usual. One, two, three; bing, bang, boom. They were too blunt. XYZ Corp recognized that “change is a process”. Ongoing newsletters, emails, and meetings led to Change Fatigue; employees never actually understood where they were in the process, or if it would ever be done. They were too gradual.
The immediate effects of change might be seen immediately – where people sit, what they talk about and with whom – but the results of a change effort take time. Treating a transformation as a “thing” – a singular, discrete event –builds awareness and urgency, but discounts the effort needed to effectively implement. Changes need time to absorb into a company’s culture. Significant, fundamental change can take years. That can be tough, even for those that are prepared to work through that period. Without seeing progress over a significant period of time, proponents grow weary and resistors grow bold.
What is “Just Right”?
Even an implementation that requires a “tear-the-Band-Aid-off” approach needs to communicate the breadth of its plan Change leaders should schedule short-term wins. That’s right, “schedule” the wins – not “seek” or “hope for”. In the planning stages, immediate goals to meet, beat, and celebrate should be identified and set as milestones. People need to see progress to stay motivated.
That third of the workforce taking a “wait and see” approach? This is what they are waiting to see. The goals need to be clear, the wins unambiguous.
The point of Goldilocks is that there is no singular, universally correct Truth. “This bed is too big,” she says when she checks out Papa Bear’s Beautyrest. In fact, it is not “too big”; it is simply “too big for her.”
All of these “rules” about Change – “too fast”, “too slow” – imply that we should be looking for some empirically correct measure. And the fact is, that will be different for every organization, for every group of people at any given time.
Since every organization is different, “Just Right” means:
- Enough Alignment to move forward – critical mass, not complete consensus
- A clearly articulated Scope whose goals allow for agility in seeking results and filters out distractions
- Diverse Accountability to provide appropriate governance, with neither bureaucracy or autocracy
- The Respect for Change to recognize it is neither a single event nor a relentless campaign, but a series of wins
Successful leaders don’t need to hew to a specific one-size-fits-all timetable, they need to understand their people and culture and apply the guidelines with respect and intelligence.