Managing Change? Start With Yourself

Professional coach, speaker & writer (Worksphere) helping executives act with courage in creating organizations people long to work in.

Not a day goes by in which tens of thousands of organizations embark on projects to restructure or merge, adopt new technologies, adapt to a new CEO’s desire to redefine a vision, strategy or set of values — or anything else hyped as enterprise transformation.

The classic change trajectory goes something like this: Someone (usually a senior leader brought in to fix a problem) or something (a new technology or regulatory requirement) triggers the need to do things differently. A sponsor is identified. A team is assembled, and the project is launched. 

Next, a charter is drafted, and activities are planned and tracked on Gantt charts. As momentum builds, communication plans are formulated and approved, and distinct phases are sprinted through. With passing months, milestones are celebrated, and training programs are instituted. At some point, the transformation is declared a success: The new software system is in place, a workforce adjustment — a.k.a. “rightsizing” — is complete or a “game-changing” business model is announced. Cue some version of ribbon cutting.

Look no further than the popular book Leading Change by John Kotter for evidence of change as a recipe. It offers an eight-step process designed to guide transformation efforts from vision to design to implementation, with a strong emphasis on mastering one stage before embarking on another. 

Yet change is hardly a linear, straightforward, dispassionate process. Those who have lived it, which includes virtually all of us, know it’s messy and emotional and triggers scores of unintended consequences. Periods of anxiety and grief are common. However, most organizations — and the leaders entrusted to run them — fail to understand that most of what we call organizational change is actually an ego- and identity-related process for everyone that goes far beyond a “case for change” paired with a project plan. This is one reason change efforts fail.

And fail they do. My three decades of witnessing mid- and large-scale enterprise change efforts confirm data from Bain & Company stating only 12% of change initiatives achieve what they set out to accomplish, with 38% failing by a wide margin and the remaining 50% settling for a significant shortfall. These latter 88% of projects seem to fade from daily parlance and vanish from updates to the board like light sucked into a black hole.

This is particularly relevant as organizations everywhere are currently pressed both from within and out to become inclusive, bias-free and anti-racist. Casting culture initiatives as transformation schemes, with assumptions of what worked in one country, within a distinct industry, at one specific organization, under particular conditions and led by specific leaders, is a mistake. A bigger mistake, however, is clinging to the commonly held assumption that change is something we make happen “out there,” like a training program or hiring targets, and not something we invest in becoming.

While those best-selling business books or pricey consultants would have you believe otherwise, the truth is this: Entrenched, long-standing organizational issues, along with societal problems that manifest at work, require far more upfront inquiry, understanding and time than solutioning and action-planning. You cannot, for instance, create a more inclusive workplace culture by putting employees through an hourlong workshop on bias.

Yet decades of change management orthodoxy have seduced a significant number of leaders into thinking of change as an event or a process with a defined start and end. This trend started with Kurt Lewin’s 1947 “unfreeze-change-refreeze” model of change management, which presumes a simple and repeatable process regardless of scale or context. This may have been true decades ago, but in today’s wildly unpredictable world, it is woefully inadequate and a quick route to widespread employee disengagement. 

Change and transformation is, at its core, a human undertaking of surfacing and challenging beliefs and assumptions. It touches less on what needs to be different and why and far more on who we need to be and become, which is a deeply personal daily practice, and far more difficult. And leaders need to be at the heart of this.

Put another way, the higher up you go in an organization, the more professional development is personal development. Too many leaders see their roles as accomplishing what others have failed to do in the past and think that a rational methodology and accompanying script to accomplish this exist. 

This thinking is supported by a plethora of books that offer “no-fail” guidance on leading through change, with page after page of advice on communicating the benefits of the change and scant advice on addressing how people actually respond to shifts in expectations or reporting structures, depending on a variety of factors. These range from role and rank in the organization, years of service, race and gender to where they are in their career trajectory, their individual predispositions to see glasses half full or half empty, and, above all, how human brains experience threats to security. 

The worst leaders treat change as something other people do, handing the mandate to a project management team and moving on to the next priority, while the best acknowledge that change is an inside job, meaning anything we want to change around us starts with acknowledging that we are an integral part of a system that created the current reality or is sustaining it. When you work on changing yourself, seeing and addressing what in your role is not working, you have a far likelier chance of changing a situation or, at a grander scale, an organization.

Let’s call it a day on the three- or five- or eight-step change models. They look good in a slide deck but rarely work. What does is facing the challenge of the obstacle within us as leaders and creating the circumstances and safety for others to do the same. None of this is easy, but it is the only effective path to meaningful and sustained change.

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