Today’s post is by Phil Buckley, author of Change with Confidence: Answers to the 50 Biggest Questions that Keep Change Leaders Up at Night. (CLICK HERE to get your copy) Here’s Phil…
Leaders react differently when tasked with leading a big change. I experienced this when I led change management for a merger. Each of the department leaders I met with while scoping the project approached it differently: some asked detailed questions while others just listened; some expressed concerns while others seemed unaffected; and some wanted help while others didn’t.
They all had two things in common – leading a big change was new to them and none of them felt the project would go smoothly. Years later, I realized that confidence is the most important characteristic leaders can draw upon when leading change. They need to be confident that they are speaking to the right people, paying attention to the right things and creating the right environment for team members to take on new ways of behaving and working.
All big change projects require significant adjustments. Most require new attitudes, capabilities, processes, systems and relationships. Leaders must confidently lead their people through these unknown, difficult and often uncomfortable changes. Comfort with ambiguity and grace under pressure are essential attributes of the successful leader leading change.
Confidence is tested the most when leaders can’t answer questions based on their past experience. Their operational experience doesn’t translate well to the circumstances and issues they have to manage during change. What has made them successful in the past has little bearing on their ability to successfully lead change. Since they have no reference point upon which to form a view or base a decision, they feel like they are trapped in a burning building where going left looks as safe as going right.
When faced with new questions relating to the change, leaders often fall back on their gut instincts or act on the first information they get. Making decisions quickly is crucial to effective change, but by doing this, they can unintentionally lay landmines that will detonate later when changes are made.
Here are three approaches you can take to build your confidence in leading a big change:
1. Understand the types of questions you must ask and answer.
Though change is rarely linear, it is helpful to review the main questions you will face through each phase of the project, from start-up, to planning, to implementation to embedding the changes. Your focus will change as you progress through the phases. Questions at the beginning of the project, such as, “will the change actually achieve the desired outcome?” are different than the ones you must answer at the end, like “how do I keep the change alive?”
There are two types of questions that leaders must face in each phase: project management and human dynamics. The latter questions are the most challenging because they require adjustments to how people think and behave, take a disproportionate amount of time and are difficult to measure. Learning the questions and their significance from those who have lead or worked on big change projects in the past, both from within and outside of the organization, will help a leader avoid being caught off guard and will ensure he or she is better prepared to answer them.
2. Ask your team members these questions before they need to be answered.
Some leaders only answer the questions that arise during the project, believing the ones that don’t emerge are not important. This approach can increase risk, limit planning and present a false sense of security. Getting perspectives from your team members on all possible questions will help you and your team broaden perspectives and create well-rounded answers.
Reviewing the main questions of each phase of the project will validate that your plans are thorough, your objectives have been achieved and the organization is ready to move to the next phase. Not doing so could lead to business disruption, delays, increase costs or demotivated employees.
3. Consider all relevant information before making decisions.
During big change projects, speed is the new currency. Leaders are pressured to make quick decisions in order to honor timeline commitments, often short-cutting the decision-making process they normally follow. It is important that you consider all relevant inputs including facts, options and rationale. Many times, leaders are given forced choice options, deciding between two choices when a third or fourth would be better. Make sure you consider all available information, not just what you are given or what is easily available. Be sure to ask “what haven’t we considered?” or at the very least request additional data and cross-functional viewpoints before making big decisions.
Leading change is difficult and the capabilities leaders need to do so are different than the ones acquired through operational roles during stable times. You can build your confidence and skill-sets by preparing yourself for the change related questions you must answer when leading a big change project. Knowing what you will face ahead of time is half the battle.
– Phil Buckley is Managing Director of Change with Confidence Incorporated, a firm that helps leaders and their teams to transition to new ways of working and thinking for improved performance. Phil is also the author of Change with Confidence: Answers to the 50 Biggest Questions that Keep Change Leaders Up at Night.