Reinvention of the Change Leader

As a leader, you could be the biggest obstacle to a successful change.

Point A to Point B

Most think of a change as getting from Point A to Point B. We’re going someplace new and when we get there – we’ll be done! But, broad-scale change isn’t linear or sequential. And, you’re never done. I’ve seen organizations overcome with change fatigue because they want to get their change behind them. Yet, one destination becomes the next and the next. Change just works that way.

People and organizations are living, breathing organisms that can be guided and encouraged, yet change only happens when people are ready to change how they think, how they work, or how they connect with others. This reality takes a new kind of change leader.

A reinvented change leader can let go of the wheel and bring others in early. They can learn as they go and adapt to changing conditions. Changes move organically not because of a hierarchy or set process. As Niels Pflaeging puts it, “milk in coffee is a better metaphor for change than the widespread notion as a journey from here to there.”

“Milk in coffee is a better metaphor for change than the widespread notion as a journey from here to there.”

Historically leadership programs have been built on authority, ‘leading the charge’ and having all of the answers. These classic leadership behaviors have been instilled in us since the early 1900’s with the introduction of mass production bound by machines and interchangeable people. Leading a change couldn’t be more different than adhering to a set process or hierarchy.

The Right Conditions

Effective change leaders create conditions for change. Ask questions and listen more. Step back to let others design how these goals are achieved. Don’t evaluate so quickly that new ideas are too risky to share. Knockdown obstacles, yet resist being the fixer. Your change leader role is to nurture the right conditions.

What are these conditions? Some examples include:

  • No fear for trying something new or speaking up with a different perspective
  • Ideas generate from multiple people not just those with the most senior title or the most experience
  • Value and promote experimentation on a small scale rather than with one big bang that makes you feel changes are happening faster

The Train’s Leaving the Station With or Without You. Right?

Change always brings resistance and skepticism. Isn’t it the leader’s job to push skepticism out of the way and “get everyone on board”? The train is leaving the station with or without you! Not really.

Don’t think of resistance as an obstacle but a treasure trove of information. Embrace it rather than burying it. You may miss an essential insight that solves a previously unidentified problem or prevents a major setback later. The team may need a skill set they don’t have today. There may be a simple lack of understanding. These concerns and questions left unaddressed cause people to dig their heels in and momentum stops.

Bring the resistance out into the light of day. Ask for hesitations along with ideas and solutions. Let everyone know you expect recommendations rather than you providing all of the answers.  I received great advice that ‘pointing out problems isn’t hard. Anyone can do that. Have ideas and options ready.’ Ask for ideas and recommendations – and then listen.

Desirable Tensions

How do you get your arms around the resistance and the concerns? Holocracy uses a concept called a “tension” which means acknowledging a distance between how things are and how they could be. Tension isn’t good or bad, but simply a gap between today and the aspiration. Tensions are openly explored, and everyone is expected to voice their tensions. Meetings often start with all participants sharing tensions to be sure they are identified so they can be explored. Embracing “tensions” is a great technique in any change.

Ask a few basic questions to address resistance or discuss tensions:

  1. What is your tension? How does it show up? (Just asking the question sets the expectation it’s safe to share and expected)
  2. What do you recommend we try? What is your view on how we take the first step?
  3. Who needs to be involved? What must their commitment be?
  4. How long will this action take to try an experiment or an alternate approach?
  5. How will we act upon these learnings and new information?

 These answers can lead to new experiments, options or a new direction that will enable the change.

People Change When They are Ready

In big changes, describe the future and the possibilities, but stop short of handing out your plan. Let others be part of designing the future and it will become everyone’s future, not just yours. Learn from the resistance.

And, always remember that your role is to create the conditions for the change to happen rather than do it all yourself. People change when they are ready to change. Your role is to make it easier.

Patti Johnson is the CEO of PeopleResults and can be followed @pattibjohnson or @people_results.