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Archive for the ‘General Change’ Category

A New Year of Change

Thursday, December 23rd, 2010
As a challenging 2010 winds down, look forward to 2011 with resolve and hope

for change. Imagine that future possibilities are greater than the disappointments of the past and the challenges of the present.

Here are some thoughts on change. I hope they inspire you, too, as you chart a course for 2011 and beyond for your organizations and yourselves.

“Failure is only an opportunity to more intelligently begin again.” ~ Henry Ford
“Change is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” ~ Buddhist saying
“There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.” ~ Niccolo Machiavelli
“Groups become great only when everyone in them, leaders and members alike, is free to do his or her absolute best.” ~ Warren Bennis and Patricia Ward Biederman
“To reach a port we must sail, sometimes with the wind and sometimes against it. But we
must not drift or lie at anchor.” ~ Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr.
“If things seem under control, you’re just not going fast enough.” ~ Mario Andretti
“We miss 100% of the shots we don’t take.” ~ Wayne Gretzky

Best wishes to all for the holidays. Have a happy, healthy and sustainable new year.

Prisoners of Where We’ve Been

Tuesday, September 30th, 2008


While reading one of the many articles about the upheaval in the financial system, I was struck by how Lehman Brothers went bankrupt and Merrill Lynch survived to be acquired, and how a key distinction was the CEOs’ perspectives as a long-time insider (Lehman) vs. a new outsider (Merrill).


Albert Einstein is often quoted as saying, “The significant problems we have cannot be solved at the same level of thinking with which we create them.” There are many issues at play in the financial crisis, however the examples of Lehman Brothers and Merrill Lynch illustrate that the “same level of thinking” also can not only keep you from solving the problem, it can keep you from seeing its significance.


It’s important for leaders to look outside their own experience and their companies’ own experience, by seeking the input and ideas of their stakeholders – employees, customers, shareholders, etc.


Richard Fuld Jr., the CEO of Lehman Brothers, started at the firm as an intern in 1966 and has run it since 1994. The New York Times (Sept. 20) describes him as “a classic Wall Street trader — taking big risks, reaping huge rewards, exuding intensity and demanding loyalty.” Fuld’s “defiance and independence” and view of business as usual, said the Times, led him to misjudge the severity of the crisis and delay seeking a capital infusion.


John Thain took the helm of Merrill Lynch last October after the company’s former CEO was forced out. Thain spent his career at Goldman Sachs and the New York Stock Exchange before he was brought in to help Merrill sort itself out after reporting billions in losses, the first step of which was to raise money. He also made a point of reassuring investors, according to the Times, that “We’ve got fresh eyes on these problems, and we’re not wedded to believing this company has done everything right for years.”


“We are all prisoners of where we have been. The longer you are attached to a place, the harder it is to see it without rose-colored glasses,” says James D. Cox, professor at Duke University School of Law.


So how can we avoid the rose-colored glasses?


Create a culture of communication and accountability.


Start by making sure everyone in the organization has a clear understanding of its strategy, give them a clear vision of success and clear goals, and give them the skills they need. Then set them loose to find ways to get there, and be open to anyone in the company who raises a flag when things change. How? Reshape the organization if necessary and give them incentives based on the company’s performance.


For that matter, be open to those outside the company.  Stakeholders need to have a place at the table, or at least have input. Include customers in planning large initiatives that could affect them.


Here are a couple phrases you should be alert to. If you hear them in your organization, an alarm should go off telling you that the organization’s radar is malfunctioning: 

  • “We’ve always done it this way.”
  • “We know better than anyone else.”
  • “We don’t need anybody’s help.”

Rewiring for Change

Monday, June 30th, 2008

If you’ve ever tried to change an organization, you’ve undoubtedly struggled with resistance. What you may not know is that resistance has a physical underpinning. Our brains are hard-wired against change.


Neuroscience can explain a lot about why we react the way we do to change as well as how we respond in the face of stress – and there’s no doubt that change can be stressful.


The first thing we do when exposed to a new idea is to compare it with what we already know. This comparison process takes place in the pre-frontal cortex, an energy-intensive part of the brain. On the other hand, we use the basal ganglia to deal with things we’ve already learned to do. This part of the brain sits amid established pathways of long-standing habit and takes much less energy to activate.


In addition, the brain uses a lot of energy to cope with surprises – perceived differences between what we expect and what actually happens. If we’re expecting something to taste sweet and it tastes salty or bitter instead, the orbital front cortex generates strong error signals. The orbital front cortex is closely connected to the amygdala, which houses the brain’s fear circuitry (more on this in a second).


So what do we need to do to overcome these predispositions?


First of all, it takes energy to process all the new information flooding into the brain, so help it out by reducing the number of inputs. The more people focus on what they’re learning – and change is all about learning – the better able they are to handle it. Get them away from day-to-day stress and distraction and introduce the new information in off-sites or other meetings where they can focus.


And make it an engaging, pleasurable experience.


Telling people “you’re all screwing up and heads will roll if we don’t fix this” engages the amygdala’s stress-fueled fight-or-flight reflex. Stressful situations create tunnel vision. Fear or anger. All we see is the enemy or the way out. Don’t we really want people to be at their most engaged and creative when they’re trying to discover how to make our organization’s more effective and successful? We get that by focusing on more positive things – goals, strengths, collaboration.


Looking forward toward a desired outcome instead of at the things you want to stop doing has another positive effect. If we assume it takes a similar amount of energy to worry about problems as it does to focus on goals, which do you think is a better investment of that energy?


Second, moments of insight help people to internalize new information and new ways of doing things far better than simply being told. One way to provide that insight is to engage people in designing the changes that need to be made. Give them access to data and goals and let them collaborate on creating the new approach, the new solution. If they own the solution people are more inclined to adopt it.


Finally, let them practice and generate the pathways in the basal ganglia where deep knowledge lives. That means don’t just dictate a change in procedure, give people a chance to work with it before it really counts. Give them training. The same holds true for creating change itself. The more people engage collaboratively and creatively, the better they’ll become at it and the more successful the organization will be at learning how to keep ahead of the curve.



For more on this subject, see “The Neuroscience of Leadership” by consultant David Rock and Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz in strategy+business, Booz & Co.’s publication, and work by Daniel Goleman and others on Emotional Intelligence.


Question the Premise

Friday, April 4th, 2008

I heard a story the other day with a twist on the old “glass half empty/glass half full” scenario that’s applicable to dealing with organizational change.

A group of people were talking about the ways that attitude can affect outcomes. The leader of the team held up a glass with water in it and asked each member, “Is this half full or half empty?” The group was split, of course. Finally, the leader picked up a smaller glass, poured the water into that, and said, “It’s a full glass!”

It struck me that all too often we unquestioningly accept the basic premise, that it’s much easier to do something “the way we always have” than to take a fresh look.

Sure, it may be correct. But maybe not.

When someone says to me, “I don’t think this group has good team spirit and it’s hurting our productivity. Can you do a team-building exercise?” I could take that at face value. But that may well ignore an underlying conflict or communication gap (including unclear goals), and that the apparent lack of team spirit is a symptom, not a cause.

Think of the times when plans have been scrapped – or maybe even worse, when plans have gone ahead and ultimately failed – based on an assumption.

The best way to check those assumptions is to challenge them: Are we asking the right questions? Are we solving the right problem? Why do we need to solve it? Why is it even a problem? Why do we do things this way? What would happen if we did the exact opposite of what’s being suggested? Is there another way to look at it?

In other words, pour the water into a different glass.

When Change Works

Thursday, April 3rd, 2008

When a change effort fails, we always seem to do a post-mortem. And that’s reasonable, since we often learn best from our mistakes. But the truth is, you’re better off learning the key features of successful change and putting that knowledge to work.

I compared notes with a couple dozen friends recently about success and failure factors in change initiatives. We each interviewed three people, asking them to tell us about one successful and one unsuccessful project, and to talk about what factors contributed.

It’s an interesting exercise, and one I recommend. Talk to friends, colleagues, bosses, and employees. Just ask them to tell you the story of a change initiative they’d say was a success and have them identify the things that made success possible.

Be sure you agree on what success means. I’d say a change project is successful if it produces tangible, sustainable results that support business goals. But you can choose your own definition – as long as it’s not just finishing on time and within the budget. If you’re installing software or printing a brochure or something like that, those are great outcomes. But for real change – a CRM system that changes the way you do business, or reorganizing a department, or launching a new service – you can do both and still fail: The operation was a success, but the patient died.

To get you started, here are the top 10 responses from our unscientific study, in no particular order.

  • Urgency: Create a sense of urgency. This isn’t “the sky is falling” urgency or “heads will roll.” It’s giving people a compelling picture of the importance of the change. In an example from Kotter and Cohen’s “The Heart of Change,” a manager collected samples of 424 different kinds of gloves bought through existing disparate, wasteful, purchasing systems to demonstrate why the company needed to change to a consolidated approach.
  • Management Support: The change has to have support from top management. Even better is to have a top manager champion the change. It’s a further demonstration of urgency and indicates that resources should be available. Don’t confuse this with a manager ordering change to happen; that generally won’t stick.
  • Stakeholder Voice: All stakeholders need to have a place at the table, or at least have input. Several of the examples we found involved change designed and implemented by one group in a company that stalled because it didn’t fit for everyone affected by it. If everyone’s heard, the solutions will be more aligned with the business as opposed to off-the-shelf programs, which often fail.
  • Define Success: What’s the desired outcome? A 10% increase in sales? A 10% reduction in errors? Installing a CRM system or an ERP system, or just changing reporting structures, aren’t clear pictures of success – describe what the landscape look like when the change is completed.
  • Tie to Strategy: Assume that your teams want what’s good for the business. If you communicate a clear vision and a strategy, people have something to shoot for in a broad sense. They also will know when a big change initiative doesn’t align with strategy and vision, and may be less motivated to make it happen. If it is aligned, the odds of long-term success go up dramatically.
  • Support Skill-Building: Change will stick much better if people have the training they need to implement it and to work within the changed system afterward. If it’s a new software system, training your tech team on how it works and how to implement it is important and so is training the folks who will use it and support it later on. If it’s an organization redesign that has people doing different tasks, make sure they have a chance to learn how to do those tasks.
  • Collaboration: Lone Rangers don’t generate lasting change. They just annoy people. When people collaborate on a change effort, they all have skin in the game and commitment to long-term success.
  • Accountability: Don’t confuse activity with results. Teams that are having lots of meetings may not actually be making progress toward a goal. But milestones have to be realistic and achievable. Don’t try to boil the ocean.
  • Flexibility: That said, remember that change is going on around you too. So if the environment changes, be willing to bend the plan or even change the goals. And if you do, go back to all the other points about communication and clarity.
  • Empowerment and Trust: Give the teams a clear vision of success and clear goals, give them the skills they need, and set them loose to find ways to get there. In most cases, they’re closer to the customers than managers are, so they know best what needs to happen tactically to achieve a goal. And they respond to being trusted much better than to micromanagement.

We looked at some of the factors that contributed to the failure of change, but they mostly tended to be the reverse of the points above. Plus, you don’t really want to learn about failure and if you want to learn about success, study success.

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