It's the political season in the United States, making "change" a happy word around here. Politicians fight over who better represents change. They proclaim themselves to be agents of change. Hysterical admirers jump up and down waving "Change" signs. Change. Change. Change. As if change is desirable. As if change makes people happy. Nothing could be further from the truth. Are these people idiots?
At best it is temporary insanity. The concept of change is seductive, and if you want a new leader, then change is what you seek. But if people really wanted change, it would already be happening. Stasis is the basis for nice happy faces. The fact is that people hate change, as my friend, U. R. Rong, pointed out in "Stunted growth: Change phobia."
U. R. Rong, a.k.a. James Waletzky, took over for me for a couple of internal columns during my sabbatical last summer. He's got his own amusing blog called "Progressive Development."
Yes, change is inevitable, and embracing change is the right thing to do, but change rattles people to their core. It's stunning the degree to which people will hold onto old ideas and familiar practices that make their lives miserable rather than change to improve their lot. So, good luck trying to fix things at work, at home, or in your community. People won't like it.
But what if a change is what you need? After all, keeping things stable is nice, but it doesn't move you forward. To have an impact on your life, your team, and the world, you need to shake things up a bit. How do you get past people's cavernous craving for constancy?
Glad you asked. It's not easy, but here's a five-step program:
§ Make the case
§ Prime the pump
§ Test the waters
§ Jump on in
§ Keep it real
While most people do make the case, after that they usually jump on in, skipping steps two and three of the program. That's foolish. Skipping steps greatly increases your risk of failure. And don't give me that macho garbage about taking chances. Change is time consuming and costly. Rolling the dice because you're too impatient or stupid to know better is no sign of courage. If you're putting in the effort, do it right.
Before you can even propose a change, you've got to make your case to your peers and management. I talk about doing this in detail in my column, "Controlling your boss for fun and profit." Read it and get sponsorship for your idea so that your boss and peers won't work against you, they'll work with you.
If you fail to get sponsorship the first time, try another sponsorship route or quit while you're ahead. If you move forward without sponsorship, you'll get crushed. Making believe that it will all be fine and that everyone else is delusional is, in fact, delusional. You're not one of those geniuses that no one believed in. Those geniuses kept trying till someone did believe. If you proceed without backing, you're just an ignorant sap whose sob stories will fall on deaf ears.
Every day it seems I hear someone lament about how no one would listen or how management foiled their attempt at change for "no good reason." Yet a little digging turns up that they never got sponsorship for their goals, or they didn't make their measures transparent so people could see the problem and the improvement.
One thing I forgot to mention in "Controlling your boss for fun and profit" is that you should ensure sponsorship agreement on the measures, metrics, and targets for success. You can't get credit for reaching your goals without agreement first on what to achieve. Without that transparency, you can never claim victory. No one will notice. You can learn more about the right metrics to use in my column, "How do you measure yourself?"
Now that you have a plan of action, it's time to move forward, right? Wrong! Listen, this is important. Change is a painful process, literally. Change is closely tied to two volatile emotions—anxiety and grief.
Change is tied to anxiety because it is filled with uncertainty. Think about the last time you changed jobs. Were you concerned that the new job would be alright? That you'd be successful on the new team? That you'd have fun and enjoy it? Did you worry about what you'd do if it didn't work out? People tend to be uptight and on-edge during change; even humorless. Jumping right in and assuming that everyone will love it is just asinine.
Change is tied to grief because after the change the old ways are gone. The new ways are unfamiliar and uncomfortable. People initially long for the old ways. They miss them. It's grief, and you should know the five stages of grief:
Jumping right in before people pass the anger stage is ill-advised. The bargaining and depression stages aren't much better. How do you avoid this debacle? By priming the pump.
"Priming the pump" is an expression that comes from pouring liquid into a pump to clear out the air and allow it to function better. It general, it means to take action in advance that helps you achieve a desired result.
Priming is exposing people to a situation before it actually occurs. Priming helps people perform better in new situations and feel more comfortable. If you've ever been to a rehearsal or practiced a speech, you've been primed.
Priming change means telling everyone what to expect in advance. Talking about what it will be like, in detail, before it happens. How long before? Long enough to get at least past the bargaining stage. Depending on the scope of the change, this could be a few days to a couple of months.
During the priming you'll want to talk about the change several times, perhaps a couple of times in e-mail and a few times in person. You'll talk about why the change is important in terms that matter to them. You'll talk about the inevitable difficulty of the transition, but lay out the clear path to the desired result.
By introducing the change in advance, you get people moving through their grief and anxiety before they actually are doing anything different. You also get to hear their objections (anger) and suggested alterations (bargaining) before the change goes into effect. That gives you time to make adjustments, and gives people a sense of control and ownership, all of which smooth out the transition. Brilliant!
Of course, you'll never figure out all the trouble spots and hiccups with the change by just talking about it. You've got to try it out. How do you try it out and fix issues before everyone gives up on the idea? By testing the waters with pilots.
Pilots are trial runs of the change. You get together a small group or two to work the new way. Their special mission is to scout the future on behalf of the team. Ideally, these small groups are made of early adopters—flexible people who enjoy trying new things. You also want a couple of open-minded skeptics on the pilot teams—they'll find key issues and can become your biggest supporters.
Kick off the pilots shortly after you announce the change, while you’re still priming the rest of the team. As the pilots discover issues and blaze the trail, the rest of the team has time to get through denial, anger, and bargaining. Remember, like all good scouting expeditions, pilots should document their discoveries so others can benefit. The pilots have three other advantages:
§ Experience. When the pilots have completed their initial work, your group will have a ready-made collection of experts on the change. Now you don't need to field all the questions and it won't seem like only your idea.
§ Ownership. In fact, as people on the pilot teams work past problems and have success, they feel more and more ownership of the change. It becomes their idea as much as yours, which is just what you want. Remember to be generous with your support and praise; it will serve you, your ideas, and your team the best.
§ Validation. By the time the larger team hits the depression stage, the pilots will return with stories of success. These quick wins are essential to get your group over their depression and into accepting the change.
When the bulk of the team has stopped raising objections and suggesting alternatives, and when the pilots have come back with quick wins, you're ready to jump on in. Because of your preparation, this shouldn't be a big deal. Most of the objections and problems will already be resolved. You'll also have the pilot teams there as guides.
However, don't expect everything to go perfectly. There will be more questions and issues that arise due to the increased scale, particularly in the first few weeks. New configurations and situations will crop up as more people take on the change. Let your team know to expect these problems, and that you and others are available to help. Again, broad and regular communication both in person and through e-mail, is critical.
Of course, your change may fail for any number of reasons. That's okay. I'd much rather see someone try and fail than risk nothing and learn nothing. This also points out another great thing about pilots—they allow you to fail early.
Once you've rolled out the change and people are starting to see the benefits, you might be tempted to celebrate. That would be premature and shortsighted. When you first got sponsorship, it hinged on achieving certain goals. Your ability to claim victory depends on reaching those goals. In fact, the survival of your change depends upon it.
How can this be? After all, you made the case, primed the pump, tested the waters, and successfully jumped on in. People seem to be getting used to working the new way and may even be enjoying their new-found success. Why would anyone want to switch back? Ah, but you forgot that the sponsors giveth and they taketh away. You must keep it real.
By "keep it real" I mean keep the value of making the change real to your sponsors. The moment they forget the impact of your change is the moment they take it for granted and allow someone new to reverse it. I'll bet you know of examples at Microsoft and elsewhere.
This is why defining and tracking measures, metrics, and targets is so very important. The team and your sponsors can see the improvement over time. It never gets lost. Of course, when you eventually hit or even exceed your targets, you, your team, and your sponsors can celebrate the victory together.
Change is a part of life. The people who control and manage it are the people who succeed. It's not easy, but then again, it's not that hard either. Anyone can do it. You can do it. Doing it well will grow you and your team. Prepare well, communicate well, and make your progress transparent. Before you know it, a change really will do you good.