Chaos and fear: Harnessing negatives to lead change

Chaos and fear: Harnessing negatives to lead change

Chaos, fear, distraction from customers, obsession with internal processes, resistance and a whole lot of time on top of the normal demands of business: these are words most Australian leaders – and their staff – associate with change.

Redundancies, new technology rollouts, mergers between former rivals – anyone who has been through it knows change is not a pretty business. “When change is happening to you, it is about fear of the unknown,” says Carmel Ackerly, the CEO of the Australian Institute of Management, Victoria.

Mostly, but not always, change is driven by negatives: the loss of a big customer, a sudden fall in sales, revenue or profits, an unexpected competitor. These are the events that focus corporate leadership on the unpalatable task of change. However, good change can cause chaos: expanding overseas, rapid growth, listing on the public markets. It can cause collapse, too.

Whatever the prompt, the leadership task is one of convincing staff to do more than accept change, but to embrace it. It’s a big ask, as most leaders are aware.

Getting everyone to start at page one

The biggest mistake leaders can make is to present their company with a fait accompli. Part of the process of change is to first convince all employees that the status quo cannot be sustained, says Ackerly. It is matter of being realistic. “The best place to start is current assessment of what we do well and what you don’t do well,” she says. “Otherwise, you might change and give away what you are good at or run into a change that you are weak in.”

An assessment of strengths and weaknesses brings everyone to the same understanding of the problems. “Otherwise everyone starts from a different premise,” Ackerly says. “They think it is a small change but it is a big one, and you don’t want to set up a change program to fail.”

Depersonalise criticisms

An honest appraisal of any company’s operations can get painful – those responsible for the operations that are underperforming may feel strongly about them, or have a different view of the reasons they are weak. Ackerly says: “The best way is to come at this is from the third person: what does the company need for the results that the company wants to get? If you have lost three big customers, say we want to have 20 strong new customers, or a bottom line of 30% or a market share of 35% – goals that people can measure and grasp the size of the change they are going into.”

The next step – laying down the challenge by asking how are we going to get there? – might seem like the biggest challenge. Creative problem-solving, encouraging ideas with open discussion, and arriving at a strategy is tough, but it is nothing compared to actually convincing everyone in the company to believe in it.

The people who matter

Among the crowd of staff listening silently to your presentations are some who are crucial to your success. They are sitting forward on their chairs. “There are change junkies – the early adapters. They are the ones you want to get hold of. They sit up in their seats and get excited. You need to get them together and sell them your vision of where you want to go and what you want to achieve, and the benefits.”

Change junkies will be at every level of the organisation, and if you find them among middle managers, they are especially valuable. “Those conversations are really important. What are the positive things they are saying and what are the negative things? The positives are what you create the stories of change out of – they excite people. The negatives you have to break down or undo to remove all the blockages.” Middle managers will think through the implementation of the vision, and tell you which parts they think will succeed and fail, and why.

Time and communication

Change takes a lot of communication, and communication takes time. There is the actual change and the project around the change. The leader’s role is to check in with people though the whole process. “This is a lot of what is missed in change management,” Ackerly says.

Communication requires an honest assessment of progress. If the company is not where it expected to be in three months, it is time to reassess. If the wrong people are managing the change, the same goes. If milestones are hit, it is crucial to celebrate. When energies flag – in the middle or towards the end of the project – it is time to regroup. “Remind yourself of what it was like when you started, when you had manual processes or work-around systems, or staff who weren’t trained. Then say, look we are almost there’ to steel the heart for the final effort.”

People come and go through any project. Selling new staff the story of the change so far, the challenges and progress, the vision and the benefits, will connect them to the project. “Give them the history to connect them or you risk creating mixed cultures. You can do this by storytelling through regular meetings where teams share their stories about the change. That really helps to bind everyone together.”

Where does the time come from? It comes from a specific request: “Can you find 10% of the time for your job for me, and I will make it better.”

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