Tag Archives: Change

A key leadership challenge is to initiate and lead systemic changes that will set the organization up for success in future. Indeed, nothing else perhaps sums up why we need a leader in the first place. However, the odds are brutal – the pace of change is already furious and it only seems to be accelerating with each passing day, and that pace brings an ever-increasing amount of complexity and uncertainty. There are no guarantees that the chosen direction and pace will lead to a better situation, for the changes are too complex for any one to understand and discern, let alone predict and assure.

In this context, any change can basically be boiled down to individuals in the organization, for every other non-human change is simply a matter of updating processes, or bringing up new policies or introducing new technologies, etc. For example, a company might decide to replace manned customer care by introducing the latest chatbots, or might decide to introduce robotic manufacturing. The reasons behind this might go beyond the direct economic advantages – they could introduce consistency in quality, flexibility in deployment, and scalability in operations that might introduce new opportunities that are simply not possible today.

This leaves a leader to essentially lead the change among people. I consider all change to be ultimately human at the fundamental level, with very high social context. If a leader can’t excite and motivate her team members to embrace the change and play their part in making it happen, there is no way the leader can succeed by herself. In a 2015 article in Forbes, the author Mark Murphy shared the #1 reason why CEOs get fired is for “mismanaging change”. The #4 and #5 reasons were “denying reality” and “too much talk and not enough action” respectively, and they also seem very close to the #1 reason.

 

Surely, a leader might have power and thus control over the team members to make them accept the changes, but in today’s employee-centric market, there can’t be any such guarantees. The days of a CEO or a leader doing a town hall in a trendy city hotel or sending a nice email and hoping that the change would happen are over. With change, there is no such thing as autopilot. A leader must walk on the floor and get down into the trenches, and work with the rank and file to make the change happen.

However, how does an individual contribute to change? While everyone expects them to simply participate in the organizational change, we mostly fail to recognize why they would be motivated to participate and how can we influence them appropriately to see the change as something that helps their own careers? Should leaders simply insist on individuals delivering the results, or their charter should go beyond the mechanics and instead play the central role in enabling conditions where individuals rise to the occasion and proactively lead the change instead of simply participating in it?

In my experience, I have seen these five key behaviors that can set any individual into what I call as “individuals leading the change”. These are simple behavioral changes that any individual in the organization, irrespective of their role, can adopt without needing anyone’s permission or support, and not just improve his participation in the game but also eventually raise the game itself. They kind of build on top of each other, so I don’t recommend skipping any of these – you might benefit best by starting from the first and building the rest of those behaviors on top of it. So, here we go:

1. Growth Mindset

Why is it that some people remain content with what they know, and even developing an arrogance that whatever they know is the best and they don’t need to learn anything new or put in any further efforts to hone their skills? On the other hand, some people seem to be undaunted by their seeming lack of knowledge about a given area – they simply dedicate themselves to learning new things, never mind how many times they fail in that process?

The work by Carol Dweck on “Mindset” is perhaps the best explanation of these two types of mindsets – Fixed Mindset and Growth Mindset. People with fixed mindset almost deny any opportunity to improve themselves or get involved in exploring newer ideas, and eventually become a deadwood. However, people with growth mindset are constantly seeking new challenges that stretch their physical or cognitive skills, and even if they fail in their efforts in the short-term, they don’t seem to give up and ultimately develop a mindset of continuously reequipping themselves. Needless to say, those with growth mindset will find a great opportunity to participate in a change.

2. T-shaped skills

In a traditional team, each team member brings his or her strengths, which could be key knowledge, skills and capabilities about a given area. In a functional team, it might end up being a “birds of a feather” team thus creating a high-density of experts with similar skills, while in a cross-functional team, it might bring people with complementary skills that help accomplish a given project task better. However, a functional team might have limited effectiveness, as they must collaborate with other similar functional teams in other areas to complete a task, thus bloating up the overall team needed to own and execute a project task.

However a cross-functional team might be more effective in bringing together a small team of experts who can truly own a project task much more economically. Unfortunately, a cross-functional team composed of individual islands of excellence is simply a very weak and low-energy container with passive players. However, when individuals move away from their comfort zone and acquire capabilities in adjoining areas, they create shared competencies that allow them to operate with much higher shared empathy about other team members, and also improve their own problem-solving because they are thinking of additional aspects other than their own, and eventually allows the team members to collaborate much better. Acquiring growth mindset enables an individual to become a more well-rounded T-shaped individual who understand a much bigger picture, which allows them to help others.

3. Help others

Most organizations mimic the arena where the gladiators fight each other, and the only way for one to survive is to kill others! While this might seem like a very gory analogy of what seems like a nice innocuous workplace, our outdated performance management systems actually make us do just that. A bell curve for a team engaged in knowledge discovery will only end up destroying the team spirit. While an individual might not (yet!) have the clout to change the performance systems, the least they can do is to challenge the myth of competition by choosing to collaborate. Helping others would be a great way to get started.

Helping others also creates an obligation to reciprocate, which is a key weapon of influence per Robert Cialdini, the leading expert on this subject. When we help others, especially when that help is offered without being asked for, it builds an expectation on part of the receiving party to reciprocate the gesture in future. This sets a system of gifts and reciprocation, which is the essence of social relationships, and helps foster trust, respect and collaboration. This sets the foundation for winning teams.

4. Make the team win

Imagine you are part of a football team. Each player has been hired due to his skills – striker, defender, goalkeeper, etc. Based on the opponent team’s strengths and potential game plan, the coach might come up with field formation at the time of kick-off. However, as the game progresses, new facts will emerge that might invalidate some of the assumptions that the coach had about the best possible team formation. He might rotate players; he might even redeploy them in a different way. If the team members continue to play per their fixed role or position, can the team win?

While the team might be formed based on individual strengths and configured in a fixed formation, in the real world, a winning team would adapt itself by those very individuals playing in a fluid formation, i.e., play where the game is. Their T-shaped skills allow them to be useful to the team in more ways than one, and their trust and respect among each other enabled them to leave their fixed position and help play a winning game.

5. Take initiative

Each one of us is sitting on a treasure of strengths. Even we don’t know what we are capable of! We come up with hundreds of ideas everyday about making things better. However, most of these ideas die a silent death because we don’t take any initiative in making or validating them, or simply lack the courage to bring our ideas to life. In my experience, more people fail (and ultimately get fired) because of not taking initiative than because of making mistakes. When you have a great team that wins, it also builds the right environment where people are not afraid of taking initiative. They know that if they fail, their team members have their back. However, a big question invariably comes up – how do I know if I am taking enough initiative or not, and how can I improve it?

A few years back, I had blogged about a scale of initiative that was introduced to me in the 90s, and has served me well. Those interested could refer to the blog post “How do you measure Initiative” available at http://managewell.net/?p=1100.

Conclusions

In today’s world, a leader can’t simply demand change from her team. She must build the right conditions where team members are constantly encouraged to participate in changes in a non-intimidating environment, and build relationships that allow them to harness the social energy that is needed to make any change successful.

Also, a leader must change the mindset that individual are there simply to follow the change. If the leader recognizes that each individual has immense power to lead the change at their respective levels, the leader can not only lead to more successful change, but create a long-lasting and self-sustaining culture of participation, ownership and engagement.

(A shorter version of this article was originally published as an invited article in PMI’s Manage India magazine, and is available online at http://pmi.org.in/manageindia/volume6/issue12/invitation.html)

Want best impact? Change yourself!

A lot of us want to create an impact, especially the ones that comes in B-I-G font size. Change the world. Stop global warming. Establish world peace. Find cancer cure. Stop wars. Leave a legacy that lasts forever. We want to conquer the world with our ideas, our creation, our accomplishments.

And we want to do it in style. After all, we want to make it BIG! So, we join various causes, we become volunteer and even take up leadership positions in such volunteer organizations without having any understanding of what is needed, and whether we are up to it. I often meet people who claim to help others by organizing various forums, teaching others on how to solve their problems or matchmaking investors with entrepreneurs, and so on. What I find strange is that most of them have themselves never done any of that stuff. Most of them are armchair theorists who have this romantic view of what it takes to change the world, with them, naturally, playing a central role in it.

Changing ourselves is not only the easiest, it is perhaps the best way to make an impact…

Sadly, we don’t want to take up the most immediate problem right under our noses, but take the most complex problem that mankind has ever seen and might even be beyond us. We want to solve world peace problem little realising that the best way might perhaps be simply starting with addressing the problem in our own backyards. We want to make earth a green planet once again without really first trying to make our own abode a green patch, howsomuch small it might be. We want to take care of all the underprivileged children on this planet, and sometimes our own children are deprived of our attention and love.

We don’t find solving the small little problems sexy enough to be taken up. Because they don’t quite fit in our nice little mental model of BIG IMPACT.

Changing the world is sexy. Changing ourselves is not.

Having volunteered for over twenty years now, I have come to realize that we create the best impact when we commit ourselves to continuous change and self-improvement – and not when we go after chasing the big problems. Once you start facing and fixing your problems, fears, uncertainties and vulnerabilities around you, you bring real change and you build tremendous credibility – both are needed to take you to next level. Your credibility helps people discover you, and your work speaks for you so that you don’t need to. Over time, your body of work becomes your referencable work, and people come to you for help. That’s the time you start making bigger impact.

But the trick is to start small…preferably starting with changing yourself.

Seek new assignments for things you have not done before & develop deep expertise in one area…

Samir interviewed me for his wonderful blog Future of Project Management. It is all about my perspectives on how one can seek new assignments for things that one has never done before and develop deep expertise in one area to create an enriching and satisfying career. For the audio and the full interview, click here.

Seek new assignments...

Ten Commandments for Revolutionary Change Agents

Revolutionaries are a restless lot. In a way, they are like the ‘shooting stars’ in an organization – they are seriously outnumbered by the hundreds of twinkle-twinkle little stars, they enter an organization with tails-on-fire hurry, and (try to) change everyone and everything around them within the short time span that they are there, and then they burn out (or just lose interest when the work they set out for is either accomplished, or get bored when it doesn’t get accomplished) and just move on. They don’t have a lot of time, patience or socialistic motives making small changes here and there, or to make elaborate plans and do surveys, investigations and pilots, and so on. They would rather be out there in the middle of heat, dust and all the adrenalin-pumping and chest-thumping action than be found napping in a death-by-powerpoint meeting full of naysayers who believe it is their fundamental right to protect the status quo.

While some are born revolutionaries, some people don that role for some phase of their professional life. Irrespective of whether you are one or not, chances are that you might be reporting to one, or working with one, or managing one such person sometime in your life. I would even bet that sometime in your career, you might find the need to shift gears and play that role. These ideas have helped me over the years, and I hope they help you as well:

 

  1. Don’t ever give up. Conviction of ideas and persistence of efforts are as much a key to success as the merit of proposal. The easiest thing is to give up – and perhaps everyone before you just did that (that’s why no change ever happened before there). So, you have the choice to either join the ranks of people who just couldn’t handle the heat, or stay right there and befriend the heat. 
  2. Don’t scale down what you believe is right for the organization just because some people don’t feel that way. Again, it is very easy to offer a ten-percent solution that pleases the mighty bosses but misses out on the remaining ninety-percent hard part that will either optimize the way of working, or help it self-sustain for years to come, or make the operations more efficient, etc. By scaling down and showing only the best oranges, you might gain some immediate curreny for your ideas (and it might even be a perfectly safe ploy just to get out of a deadlock) but you run the danger of setting a precedent for your ideas: low cost, high returns. Like a ponzi scheme, you might be expected to routinely dish out such ideas that offer insane amount of returns on bargain prices, and that might kill the potential of other, far better ideas that might not offer the low-hanging fruits but are required for the organization.
  3. Don’t constantly remind people whenever things fail, even when they fail due to reasons being highlighted by you and ignored by them. Many a times, people will simply ignore your ideas and opinions for various reasons and will simply go ahead with their ideas. In some such situations, their ideas could also fail. The last thing you can do to help the organization (and yourself) is to “I-told-you-so”. We human beings need to save our face. When people are down on their knees, reminding them of the obvious risks (definitely obvious to you, but perhaps not so obvious to them) will not only make your relations strained with people, it will also not help the organization. Further, you stand to lose their support, especially when some of your ideas go wrong (as they will), you can imagine being paid in same currency.
  4. Use objective, industry-respected, hard data to support your proposals, especially if people doubt the merit of proposals (as the eventually will !). Nothing works like a fully-baked data to counter opinions of people, especially when those opinions are based purely on personal whims and fancies. However, also remember – it is not your job to respond to every possible objection. Let your work do the talking, but use as much external help as will be required to give wings to your ideas. After that, they must fly by themselves.
  5. If need be, run skunkworks. After all, the programming language Java was developed as a skunkworks at Sun. Sometimes the opposition to your ideas might be so much and strong that you must backtrack. What options do you have? Try running the project secretly. Only two outcomes are possible: either your ideas will emerge stronger, or you will discover limitations of your ideas. Either way, it is your progress. However, make sure you have some allies in the organization lest your efforts be seen as another one of the hobby projects by your already unhappy boss. 
  6. Build allies by sharing success stories from other organizations, making presentations. Most managers are extremely incompetent in the fine art of building allies. We think these are some dirty tricks of an old politician to save his government. Well, guess what, it applies as much to the workplace. The old command and control structure is gone, and in today’s world, we can’t force people to follow what we like. Even the owner of a firm might not always be able to impose his opinions upon the free will of his employees. Largely, that will be resisted tooth and nail, or offered a cold shoulder. You can avoid a lot of heartburn by building allies to support your ideas. (I will write another blog on this very important topic).
  7. Build your personal and professional credibility. If there is a possibility the reason you are not being heard within the organization is because you are not considered competant in that subject, build that credibility by writing articles, presenting papers outside the organization, get involved in your technical community networks, etc. However, this is a long-term effort. In the short-term, your ideas might get you branded as anti-establishment just because you are seeking a major shake-up and that could upset a lot of people who are not only used to doing things a certain way, they have also built their careers doing things that way. By insisting on your ideas, you might only start losing everyone’s support and your own credibility. Learn to feel the pulse of people around you when that begins to happen, and use alternate means to first restore your personal and professional credibility. Be seen as the guy who knows organizational stuff, has a feel for issues facing the company, is seen being a problem-solver, etc. Once that is done, you will be once again seen as ‘one among us’ and your ideas and opinions might then be viewed little more openly then before.
  8. Solve real problems with your change proposals. That will win allies faster than any attempt to woo them by any other legal means. Let the results speak for themselves. No organization can (and needs to) solve all its problems rightaway. Some of your ideas might be little too idealistic for the organization and some might be little too futuristic. On an apple to apple comparison, you might be right in proposing to take up your ideas, but you might be missing the big picture. Instead of taking the situation holistically, you might be able to command better respect (and support) by offering solutions for today’s problems that allow the organzation to move forward. Hopefully, today’s survival will propel the organization to tomorrow where rest of your ideas will be required. If the company doesn’t survive till tomorrow, of what possible use would those holistic ideas be ?
  9. Socialize ideas with engineers in the trenches – the people who will use them. If they understand and embrace the ideas, there would be a better buy-in as compared to the senior management asking everyone to follow. Through the history, we see one consistent pattern: the lower the level at which a revolution started, the more it endured the passage of time. Military coups have not stayed that long compared to people’s marches to democracy. So, don’t ignore the people power. They might not be the decision-makers but together they constitute a huge force that can alter the future.
  10. Don’t give up on the philosophy of the proposal. Don’t take your proposal as a prestige issue. If you can get something done today without losing out on sanctity of your proposal, it might be much better than insisting on a full support that might never happen. Further, the results from what you can do today might pave the way for future proposals. There is never a single best way to anything – if there were, everyone would already be doing it. Give credit to your colleagues, for their resistance to your ideas might be there for a reason. Be open to altering your course without diluting the vision. Just like in human relations, it is not always the content of communication that destroys the relationship – it is often the way it is conveyed. Same way, your ideas might still be palatable if served in the right china.

These have helped me over years, and still continue to help. How about you ?

 

Change yourself, not the mirror

Change is painful, especially when you have to change yourself. However, in reality all change is really about – changing yourself ! When people ignore this simple and timeless truth, they start accumulating a lot of ‘rigidity’ – growing at the rate of one day at a time, until that years-of-accumulated-and-hardened-behavior becomes a Frankenstein’s monster and an inseparable and indistinguishable part of themselves ! So much so, that they don’t even see that as the problem. I read somewhere that it takes an average of 21 days for a practice to become habit. I think the same must be true for negative change – i.e., refusal to adapt to changes around us. And in, perhaps, as little as 21 days, we just fortify ourselves against the impending and growing change around us. When that happens, another fantastic thing happens. Since we are out of tune with the system, there is a real danger of the system rejecting us. To preempt that from happening, we reject the system ! We criticise the environment around us, we comment on people’s behavior, we become cynical of changes, we are uncomfortable with others enjoying their newfound happiness…and we defend our own stand tooth and nail….and become even more rigid in that process. There is one thing as maintaining your values and convictions, and quite another to be rigid. A hairline separates them, and any judgment is as subjective as any other one. In reality, one person knows the right judgment – you.

The trick, of course, is to view every small, delta, incremental change as something as trivial as driving you brand-new car on a dirt road in the country. Just as you would slow down at every hump or look out for potholes, and chickens and dogs trying to cross the road, so should you in real life.

Mac Anderson is Founder of Simple Truths who make lovely self-help books. In a post, he shared a wonderful story:

A few years ago, British Rail had a real fall-off in business. Looking for marketing answers, they went searching for a new ad agency – one that could deliver an ad campaign that would bring their customers back.

When the British Rail executives went to the offices of a prominent London ad agency to discuss their needs, they were met by a very rude receptionist, who insisted that they wait.

Finally, an unkempt person led them to a conference room – a dirty, scruffy room cluttered with plates of stale food. The executives were again, left to wait. A few agency people drifted in and out of the room, basically ignoring the executives who grew impatient by the minute. When the execs tried to ask what was going on, the agency people brushed them off and went about their work.

Eventually, the execs had enough. As they angrily started to get up, completely disgusted with the way they’d been treated, one of the agency people finally showed up.

“Gentlemen,” he said, “your treatment here at our Agency is not typical of how we treat our clients – in fact, we’ve gone out of our way to stage this meeting for you. We’ve behaved this way to point out to you what it’s like to be a customer of British Rail. Your real problem at British Rail isn’t your advertising, it’s your people. We suggest you let us address your employee attitude problem before we attempt to change your advertising.”

The British Rail executives were shocked – but the agency got the account! The agency had the remarkable conviction to point out the problem because it knew exactly what needed to change.

When confronted, don’t change your mirror – change yourself.

If you want real change, be rigid !

 

We probably don’t need another theory on change management, but we surely need a better understanding of what we think we know. In the context of change initiatives, we often see a situation where someone wants to push change proposals, and there are ‘resistors’ to that idea. The classic duel is when the people pushing change initiatives are ‘revolutionaries’ who won’t settle for anything short of a full-fledged change to overhaul the entire system and those resisting the change proposals are ‘traditionalists’ who would be better off tinkering the system here and there in a very planned and certain manner. In my view, that is the only real-world scenario worth studying – all other combinations of change agents, allies and resistors are comparatively manageable with some common sense and a give-and-take attitude (actually, give-more-and-take-less attitude)

In such situations, the most common advise given to the change agent is to show flexibility, adapt to the situation. I agree that flexibility and adaptability are the key to a successful change initiative, irrespective whether one is in minority pushing for a change, or a majority having the backing of senior management. Holding steadfastly onto one’s viewpoints often gets people branded as rigid and unreasonable. However, this is half the story.

To show flexibility is obviously critical, but to quote George Bernand Shaw, “The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man”. If we look back at history, most successful changes agents were the ones who behaved more like the ‘unreasonable man’ in Shaw’s quote than the flexible man. Jack Welch felt GE was in trouble when it was the #1 company in the world. Ricardo Semlar (of ‘Maverick’ and ‘Seven Day Weekend’), Henry Ford, Toyoda and Taiichi Ohno, Steve Jobs, Google’s Brin and Page, Hotmail’s Sabeer Bhatia, Chester Carlson, Fosberry (the guy who questioned why to do high jump the way it was always done, and created the now famous ‘fosberry flip’) – the more I research, the more I find that greatest and most successful changes agents often defied conventional wisdom and embraced a highly ‘unreasonable’ path, and pursued their dream despite ambient negativity and criticism. Would we have the GE today had Jack Welch agreed to tone down his rank-and-yank, or his six sigma ? Chester Carlson’s invention of ‘xerox’ was rejected by over twenty companies, but he continued to believe in his ideas and eventually prevailed. When heartbroken and grieving parents of their only son, the young Stanford who died while studying at Harvard, decided to build a new university in his memory, the Stanford University, despite the dean of Harvard wanting it otherwise – they were all being ‘unreasonable’ in a bigger sense. There is a nice book I read, “Whatever you think, think opposite” where the author gives a great example of this: a fashion designer has to be, by definition, the most un-fashionable or non-conforming person – he/she can’t ‘fit in’ the crowd. To be accepted, a fashion designer must think of the most different ideas, most unfashionable which will be almost always in minority – only then will they be successful. Similarly, any new innovative product will bring a ‘disruptive force’, and hence an innovator’s dilemma is often full of tradition / compliance vs. innovation / breakaway thinking.

So, how is it that we bring real change in an organization ? When you are the top management, perhaps there is legitimate power that makes it easier, but how does an individual really bring about the change ? If you insist on your ideas far too long, you might fall out of favor. If you decide to be flexible, it might invariably mean toning down the scope or intensity of your change proposals, or both, which might nevertheless make sub-optimal changes happen, but is that really the change that counts ? I see merits and demerits on both sides, but find that real change only happens when you take an uncompromising position about what needs to be done.

Am I taking a very narrow definition of the word ‘change’ as in an epoch-making moment but excluding the millions of small-small ‘changes’ that might happen every now and then, and collectively they bring a big change ? Granted that lot of worthwhile work happens when people do such micro-changes, but do we ever get life-altering changes by adding such linear and incremental changes ? And if they do bring such life-altering changes, it probably takes a long time, is that the most appropriate approach ? 

So, if want change, any change, any infinitesimally small nano-change that serves no real value except to give a false sense of progress,  at any cost, be flexible. Adapt to the ambient constraints, and do that delta increment that is perhaps a non-event. Hope like hell that thousands of such micro-mini changes will one day change the world. Well, they just might, especially if one has not given up on them.

But, if you want change, a real change, at no cost, be rigid, absolutely firm in your vision and you shall face the deadliest armies of resistors, for the path of a revolutionary is like a minefield. And dance he must on this minefield. But, if you live to tell the tale, your tale will be written down in gold and count as something that happened.

When were you really obstinate the last time ?