It’s thursday afternoon in the auditorium. The new divisional director who had been appointed 100 days previously was presenting his plans for the future. Well, maybe they weren’t entirely his own plans, because he was flanked by three men dressed in dark suits. Strategy Consultants, of the more expensive kind. For a whole hour, he presented the new goal and the way to get there. Naturally, all of this was based on thorough market research and extensive analysis of the organisation itself. A clear case of ‘Death by Powerpoint’.
Guaranteeing change. Or stagnation.
The highlight of the presentation came after a painful silence at the end of the session. In response to the query, “Does anyone have any questions?”, you could have heard a pin drop. I sensed a slight desperation in his voice as he finished by saying, “It’s great that you understand it all, because this is what you want too, isn’t it?” “Yeah of course, we’ll get to work on it,” I mumbled. But “You must be joking!” was the thought that flashed through my head while the words exited from my mouth. And as I looked around me, I saw from my colleagues’ body language that they were thinking exactly the same. A year later, the organisation had barely changed at all, while the strategy had got bogged down in endless plans en route to its permanently faraway implementation.
Let the Change Compass* point the way
15 years later, I think I understand what went wrong that Thursday afternoon. The Change Compass* is always a good pointer in this regard. As its name suggests, it’s a compass that helps you to find the right direction in the midst of change. It helps you to steer around the obstacles that appear on any change pathway. And let’s face it: obstacles will inevitably spring up along the way. After all, it’s only human nature to focus on maintaining the status quo. The fear of the new – of the unknown – is so strong that it enables us to cope with an uncomfortable or even painful present day. Who doesn’t know anyone who goes to work with reluctance, day after day? We just get used to things. After all, they won’t kill us. But being aware of all this enables you, as the leader, to do something about it. That’s because sustainable change is actually an intrinsic part of our nature too. As long as it is sustainable and believable, the majority of the group will feel able to say, “Yes, I do want to be a part of this change”.
Seeing is believing. Who will be in charge of the change?
The first reaction when confronted with change is often to ask who will be in charge. “Okay, if she does it, it’ll go well. We trust her. She treats you as a human being. When things get tough, she won’t let you down. She’s a born leader. And an honest one.” Belief in change often starts with believing in the person who’s leading it, rather than in what the change is actually about. It’s a question of, “Do I dare to allow myself to be led into the unknown?” The hard fact is that the reverse is also true. If the leader isn’t ‘okay’, the change won’t get off the ground. Everything that possibly can be done will be done to retain the status quo. When plotting a course for change, the compass needle first stops at the ‘belief’ point. Do I believe in the person who will be leading the change?
After belief comes understanding. Why are we going to change?
Once we’ve settled the question of “Who?”, it’s time to ask “‘Why?”. Do I understand why we’re going into a new situation? Is what’s being said really true? Will 2 + 2 definitely make 4? Because if any of these things don’t add up, you can be sure that your own people will find some excellent arguments to avoid change at any price. An old client summed it up perfectly: “Our story about the need for change was thin, to say the least. And the reaction that we got when we told it was that we were kind of suggesting putting a roof on the house to protect us from the rain. Yet as far as everyone was concerned, it hadn’t rained for 5 years. They couldn’t possibly imagine why it was desirable or necessary. There simply wasn’t any burning need for it.” In other words, you need to be able to understand the purpose of something before you are prepared to see tomorrow’s new reality in your mind’s eye.
Belief and understanding are all very well… but can it actually be done?
The third compass point is ability. It’s absolutely deadly to paint people an exciting picture of the future, offer them a promising perspective, and then not help them to get there. What should I do differently tomorrow in my work? How am I going to do this with my customers? How will I make different choices? What does this demand of my attitude and behaviour? HOW am I going to do it? This is the moment to meet these needs. Not by holding endless discussions, but by providing practical, solid advice on how to deal with work situations. Such as by saying “Tomorrow, we’ll be doing it like this. And we’ll stop doing xyz.”. This will help most people, including yourself, to get a better grip on change. Do also bear in mind, though, that there will always be people who cannot change, and won’t want to do so.
Will I be supported through the change pathway?
The final point on the compass is about receiving support. This is an essential part of wanting to achieve the change itself. Because if someone believes in, understands and feels able to make the change, they will then also want to receive support when practising, experimenting and making mistakes en route towards the new reality. There’s nothing as discouraging as a manager who invites you to brainstorm about improvements and then throws out the first three ideas proposed for being unworkable and unrealistic. The fourth person with a good idea will then think very carefully about whether it’s worth mentioning. Yet it’s precisely in this phase of a change pathway that it’s crucial to encourage and confirm new behaviour – which includes making mistakes. Without support, nobody will take the first step.
Yes, maybe I’d like to change after all
If the four compass points are judged positively, people are then able to say, “Yes, I do perhaps want this change to take place”. At first, they are a bit hesitant. But as the journey progresses and they are stimulated to go in the new direction, they get more and more convinced. And if one of the four compass points doesn’t get a positive score, some more effort is called for. You could encourage people to try harder. Or you could punish them, which only has a temporary effect plus negative side-effects. That’s because sustainable change comes from within, as the result of the decision, “Yes, this is what I want.”
There’s always a logical sequence
Become aware of the directions shown on the compass. Use them as reference points for aligning interventions. Check with people to see where the needle gets stuck. Setting off on an announced change pathway by training people who don’t yet believe or understand the point of it all is a waste of money and energy. There’s a big chance that very little will be retained. So first take the time to get people to believe and understand. Only then will you get the green light to proceed to the next point, whereby people actually think about what is being asked of them.
Looking back at why I didn’t believe my director
Time to cast my mind back to my director with his 100-day plan. I pulled out because I didn’t know him, didn’t trust him and therefore didn’t believe in him. Especially not with those consultants standing beside him. Even though the rationale behind his story made a lot of sense.
End of story. Beginning of change.
Where is your compass needle going to point to next time you enter a change pathway? Do you remember pulling out of a previous one? If so, I’m interested in hearing your story. My next blog will be about steering towards the points on the compass. I’ll tell you more about how to enhance belief, understanding and ability, and about receiving support.
* Source: The Change Compass has been developed by House of Performance. The methodology behind it comes from the ‘Change Management Manual’ (Vrakking & Cozijnsen) and has been enriched by the expertise and experience of House of Performance.
* This blog is a repost of a blog by Heiko van Eldijk that was published on September 5, 2013 in Dutch