Change of hearts

Most leaders seem to interpret the phrase “change management” to mean “a way get the organization to do what I want it to do.” They follow the letter rather than the spirit of change management. As a result, their change management plans are a weak, tasteless broth consisting of communication meetings, logos, Lucite paperweights, t-shirts and employee idea programs.

One of my favourite sayings is, “People don’t hate change, they hate the promise of change unfulfilled.” That is, everybody hates la programme grande du jour that starts with a bang and ends with a whimper. With each successive launching of a new program, workers become increasingly more cynical and, over time, stop listening and lose hope.

The promise of change for the better goes unfulfilled because the vision never migrates from the head of the leader to the hands of the employees. Leaders must accept the fact that even the best strategic planning processes result in flawed visions – flawed because there is much that is unknown and not directly controllable. Some of the unknown lies outside of the organization and in the future, but the bulk of the unknown can be found in the heads of the people who were not involved in strategy-making.

The true spirit of change management is enabling all employees to express and apply their knowledge in a way that benefits each of them and the organization. If you really want to create a better tomorrow, you have to engage the heads and capture the hearts of your people before the hands of the organization can be mobilized.

Engage the head. You need to give people a reason why change is necessary and why it is necessary now. Create a sense of urgency by using the voice of the customer. Take your fuzzy vision and clarify it by talking to the people who serve the customer. Work on your vision until it is crystal clear and you can communicate it in five minutes.

Your five-minute elevator speech should be structured like a story, respecting the past by recognizing accomplishments and strengths, frankly discussing current challenges and what change needs to occur, and painting a picture of the better day ahead. As corporate change guru Terry Paulson says, “The difference between a vision and a hallucination is the number of people who can see it.”

Capture the heart. People are motivated by purpose, affiliation and security. You need to build all of these into your change program. Motivations are personal, so you must enlist people one at a time by understanding what drives them and bringing their resistance to the surface. Ask questions, making it easy for them to tell you what is working well, what is going wrong, ideas they have to make things better, and all the reasons why change should not happen or is not going well. Keep in mind that silence is resistance carried out by other means.

Give your staff a “noble purpose” by articulating the vision in terms of what’s good for the customer. Help people affiliate by teaming them with others on an important initiative. Finally, be honest with employees about the likely implications of change. Offer “soft landings” (such as education programs, severance packages and retention bonuses) for those who will lose their jobs or will need to change jobs and skills.

Free the hands. To build momentum for your change program, pick some easy projects so that people can taste early wins. Set up clear performance measurements so that progress is transparent to everyone. Define rules to ensure that people are operating consistently with your vision for change, while at the same time giving people plenty of freedom to apply their creativity (for more on how to do this, see the Harvard Business Review article “Strategy as Simple Rules,” Jan. 1, 2001). Help people recognize when they are overloaded and make it easy for them to ask for help.

There is nothing more exciting than working for a visionary, passionate leader. And there is nothing more frustrating than seeing visionary leaders hamstrung by their inability to create the future. In the words of organizational theorist and author Peter Senge, “What [many wannabe leaders] never grasp is that the natural energy for changing reality comes from holding a picture of what might be that is more important to people than what is.”