How to avoid the obvious when making a change

Sometimes the way to effective change management is to rip up the rule book, says James Clement

Most people believe that to enable large-scale change in an organisation, you need a change team. That change team needs thorough plans, stakeholder maps and a communications plan. Following Kotter’s checklist also helps. But what if that’s not the answer? What if change is just too complex and too fluid to fit neatly into a linear, logical solution? The answer – don’t do the obvious.

Don’t expect a change team to make changes 

I’m not saying don’t use a change team – I’m saying don’t devolve change to a change team. There’s a difference. Imagine your frontline experts, caught up in the day-to-day running of operations, meeting challenges every day, while encouraging their teams to think and work differently. They need help from someone who’s been there and seen it before, who can coach and equip them with the change mindset and tools that will help. Find your change champions within the workforce – don’t take change away from the people who know the business best. Support them to do it themselves. 

Avoid having a plan that’s too clear and linear

Your change plans need to be flexible. Yes, they need a start point and a target, but the journey in between those points will itself change. And, importantly, those involved in the change need to own the plan, review it and then change it when it needs to correct its course. They will need parallel plans that interconnect, and regularly work through issues on those plans to reach a resolution – a resolution which may well be unravelled the following week. That’s why change is hard. You need to be comfortable with logic and ambiguity, with big picture and detail, with pace and politics. 

Don’t assume most people will make it

The reality is that you will lose people along the way, and that’s OK. Great leadership spawns active followership. That means people who actively choose to follow, having sussed out the pros and cons and implications for the organisation and themselves. They then become the most inspiring leaders. Colleagues who aren’t bought into the change will actively or passively derail it. Do your best to bring them along, but accept that, for some, it may be best for them and the organisation if they leave.

Don’t rely completely on engaging communication

You will need engaging communication that sets out the need for change and what to expect. But don’t let this mask do the real work. You have to get your sleeves rolled up, you need to plunge into the day-to-day issues and work with teams to find the fixes. A beautifully crafted communications plan will backfire if it’s disengaged from reality. It needs to be two-way, and able to adapt as the change it sets out to communicate evolves. Get beyond the shiny and paint the compelling picture that speaks to people’s reality. Don’t know what their reality is? Get out there and find out.

Don’t jump in with a change toolkit

A newly qualified plumber may have a shiny new toolkit but do they really know what they are trying to fix? Have they asked the right questions? The point is that tools on paper, in isolation, or in your head are best left there if they are only tools. Seek first to understand. Don’t assume you have the answers and don’t assume those you are speaking to have the answers. You don’t just need a spanner, you need your brain and every ounce of emotional intelligence that you can summon.

People who have deep change expertise will not be sitting in a room talking about it. They will be out there doing it. Which are you? 

James Clement is vice president of Egremont Group