Change is hard. We all know this. Leading through change is even harder. Read Simon Sinek, Kotter, or Toffler, and you’ll see that people spend years seeking to understand and prepare for change and lead others through it to a successful outcome.
In my professional life, I help organizations clarify and plan for the changes coming in their futures. I advise on considerations ranging from culture to decision-making factors, and strategy to measurement. In my personal life, I find myself considering many of the same things. As the mom of a headstrong three-year-old, I (shamelessly!) employ tenants from change leadership to help as I lead her development.
Initially, I found it somewhat surprising to tap into change management fundamentals as I embarked on the ultimate on-the-job training (parenting). I’ve realized, however, that a few fundamental truths exist. First, change is an absolute. Whether in business, society, economy, community, or nuclear family, there’s no such thing as stagnancy. So we’re always facing the need to anticipate, understand, plan, and adapt – core components of change management. Second, you can have all the academic knowledge in the world, but if you lack soft skills like empathy and interpersonal communication, effective management can’t happen.
Recently, I was taking a large organization through a change management effort, and the client asked what ‘perfect’ looks like. She wondered where I have seen people or businesses do change management correctly. In all honesty, I responded that there is no perfect. But it’s very possible to be successful if you take into account three central considerations:
- Who is the audience?
- What do you have to do to make the change happen?
- Are you willing to make the first hard choice and act?
Details exist within the three considerations – a strategic and tactical plan of attack. The first consideration and the last are all about people. I’ve broken down the three considerations, in hopes that I can provide you with a set of questions and reminders you can overlay onto whatever change you’re managing – whether procedural or parental.
First: Know your audience
When you start a new effort, you may know a lot, but you don’t yet know everything. Start with the stakeholders. Immerse yourself in their environment. Meet them where they are and ask questions to clarify what they need to cross the gap to a successful outcome. You’ll gain a sense of their emotional and rational drivers so that you can articulate process and value in a way that will resonate and motivate them.
Some questions to consider for building your audience profiles:
- Where do I need to take them?
- Why do we need to change?
- What’s in it for them?
- What do they think about this change?
- What is the message I need to send, in what venue, and how frequently?
We’ve done a lot of stakeholder analysis over the years. Even if a goal is consistent across a mix of stakeholders, you have to tailor the message, the medium, and the cadence appropriate to who they are, not just on what you are intent on saying.
Second: Know what to do to reach the outcome
Know when to dig in, when to give in, and when to hold your ground – especially when the stakes are high. At Toffler, we’re believers in the ‘headwork before footwork’ approach. During your planning, establish priorities and non-negotiables. These core tenets of the change you’re pursuing will keep you moving in the straightest line from start to finish. Keep in mind that a successful outcome may not mean you hit 100% on every detail (that may not be possible). If you know the priorities, you’ll have the best chance at real progress.
Some questions to consider for establishing priorities, compromises, and immutable points:
- What am I trying to achieve?
- What are the crucial steps to get there?
- What can I compromise on and what can I not?
- How do I evaluate a tradeoff?
- Where can I be flexible and meet my audience closer to where they are?
- How do I ensure that my audience understands why I’ve taken the stand, how it is important to the greatest goal, and how we’ll figure it out together?
Think in lists. Engage key stakeholders. Delineate between your objectives and the key results that show whether you’re hitting them. Then act. You’ll have a game plan and initial buy-in that will help at every step along the way – once you take that first step.
Which leads to the third and most crucial step.
Third: Be willing to act, and then do it
The chance of accomplishing your objectives begins when you make the first hard decision and begin to act. Here’s where the change shifts from hypothetical to real. It also makes the process human. Humans have to take responsibility for the action, even if that action is pushing the button to start a mechanical process. If you know what that first choice and action need to be, you can take it with confidence and a sense of what the outcome likely will be.
Some questions to consider for kicking off the change behavior:
- What is the first hard choice or decision I have to make?
- What signals do I need to send to communicate that I mean business and am dedicated to achieving the goal?
- What will I need to do to stick to that decision once the change is in play?
- What is the anticipated impact and how can I prepare for it?
- How (and when, how often, and where) do I communicate with my audiences so they join me in the process?
Anyone who has undertaken a significant change – or parented a toddler – knows that you can read a manual for just about any challenge. You can write down a plan. You can build majestic outlines detailing your objectives, strategies, tactics, and performance indicators.
And if you forget that you’re dealing with human beings, all of those academic details are a waste of time. We’ve said it already. Change is hard, uncomfortable, and maybe even scary. You’ve got the reality of Newton's third law – for every action there’s a reaction, which means there will be details you can’t control. But by honing your human-focused soft skills, you’ll have a better chance of successfully managing the knowns and unknowns in the change journey because you’ll have people involved who are willing to trust and act.
Succeeding at change management – and parenting – means knowing your audience, asking the right questions, listening without bias, and considering how to act on the answers objectively. Sometimes, the people inside the organization are too close to the issue to be able to do all those things well. If that’s the case, the Toffler Associates team is ready to help – unless, of course, you’re dealing with your toddlers. (We have our own to manage.)
It’s time to remember that we have to align people, outcomes, and actions to succeed in change leadership.