Lessons in Leadership: How to instigate and manage change

The most basic requirement for the success of a change you're making is that it's real and is interpreted correctly. This is not only because the change may fail, but because what good is an impeccably executed project if it accomplishes exactly what you should not be doing?

I trust you will agree with me that the world has changed dramatically in this short period of time. Scores of business titans have fallen or are fighting for survival, while opportunistic carpe diem challengers have moved ahead. Change is omnipresent and while some transformations are predictable, others have come from nowhere (for this reason, I recommend reading The Black Swan by Nassim Taleb, a read that is not only thought provoking but also immensely enjoyable).

If you're in a leadership position, it's incumbent on you to instigate and manage change within your organization. How do you go about it to ensure success?

In my experience, there are five key success factors, which I will discuss briefly.

Do it for a good reason

I suppose it's possible to launch a change just for the sake of doing something, but I suspect there aren't many organizations and people out there today who don't have enough to do. A legitimate change initiative is always in response to an opportunity or need.

The most basic requirement for the success of a change you're making is that the aforementioned opportunity or need is real and is interpreted correctly. This is not only because the change may fail, but because what good is an impeccably executed project if it accomplishes exactly what you should not be doing?

You may remember the Sharper Image stores. They sold a variety of overpriced but somewhat clever gizmos. The company was founded in 1977 and grew on catalog and retail sales, employing 2,500 people during its best times. At some point it decided to branch into the infomercial business (hear the sound of change?) with Oreck's vacuum cleaner and its own Ionic Breeze. Unfortunately, Ionic Breeze turned out to be a dud of a product, of which Consumer Reports promptly made everyone aware. The Sharper Image's image was dulled considerably, sales plummeted, and the company filed for Chapter 11 in 2008. This was an example of pursuing a change that was not needed.

Set clear goals

You have to be clear about your goal and desired outcomes and communicate them very clearly in a 360-degree fashion. SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Time-Bound) goal setting has not lost its relevance.

For example, let's say that among the areas in your care is the IT help desk. The larger organization's business model has been recently altered and there is a legitimate need to improve your help desk's service. It's not good enough to declare that your goal is to "improve service to our internal customers," because that's as nebulous and confusing of a statement as can be.

Instead, consider the following unambiguous statements:

  • "Resolve 98% of all reported problems within 2 hours, by Jan 1, 2010"
  • "Extend Helpdesk hours of operation to 24/7/365 with 95% of calls answered within 30 sec, by Jan 1, 2010"
  • "Offer third line support for WhizPen 5.x and WhizPencil 4.x, by Jan 1, 2010" (you may need to explain what "third line support" means when you communicate your goals).
While I advocate that the goals be attainable, I also advise my clients to go for stretch goals (those that are deemed unreachable under present assumptions) when a significant, breakthrough improvement is possible (think of the sixth brick!). Note that "unreachable under present assumptions" does not mean "unattainable." It's your job as a leader to challenge your people on how these present assumptions can be changed to hit the target.

Establish responsibilities

  • "I thought you were doing it..."
  • "Am I supposed to be looking into it?"
  • "This is new news to me"

Sound familiar? Managers everywhere commonly take the position that their people know what they're doing and there's no need to "task" anyone with anything. This is an inverse of micromanaging and we've all experienced this kind of treatment.

Even more important is making your expectations clear to the people outside of your area. For example, one of the most common reasons for failure in change management is the absence of exemplars, those within the organization who are highly respected and have a significant clout. You need to "recruit" these people to help make your project a success by exemplifying the desired behavior. If you can't get this kind of support, there's little chance of winning.

The last point here is about you. Are you the right person to lead this initiative? Do you have enough clout, charisma, time, experience or knowledge to do it? Give it some thought.

Use the right leverage

In open mines around the world, you'll find giant mining trucks, each capable of carrying hundreds of tons of rock. Standing next to the largest among them, an average human merely reaches the hub of the wheel. Driving one is like driving a house.

Yet ordinary people do it all over the world all the time. There is no brutal force involved whatsoever. After doing it for a while, I would imagine, the operator doesn't think much of his or her job. They just know that the giant machine will respond to their commands when they so request.

Often, managing a change in an organization is akin to turning around a giant mining truck. You know how much space you need, you eyeball the available area and then turn the wheel or push the joystick. You don't get out of the truck and push it from behind — that obviously wouldn't work.

Change leaders often make the mistake of assuming that it's all up to them to "make it happen." So, they get out of the truck and start pushing—long days, speaking from the soap box, being in many places at the same time, micromanaging...hypertension, here I come. What they should be doing instead is applying the appropriate kind of leverage: formal power, peer pressure, well designed incentives, grassroots movement, influencing techniques and so on. You'll turn the truck around if you know which controls to use.

Measure and adjust

If you can't objectively measure your progress towards the goal, how will you know that you're successful? How will you know when to make adjustments to your approach?

I mentioned earlier that goals should be SMART, where M stands for Measurable, and gave an example of three statements that can be easily measured. Not having this in place is like driving the mining truck blindfolded: you might get there, but "there" may be a ditch.

One of the key weaknesses of change management initiatives is that people take some very loose orders from upstairs, jump on their horses and gallop into the fog. At some point, no one is sure where they are. Some dismantle and walk, eventually stopping altogether, some still ride into the fog for a while, but eventually, everyone is lost, confused, frustrated. The leaders thank everyone for their valiant effort and declare success.

The bottom line is you need to measure your progress, adjust your means and, if needed, change the direction. Only then will you make it through the adversity, uncertainty and the changing landscape.

Ilya Bogorad is the Principal of Bizvortex Consulting Group Inc, a management consulting company located in Toronto, Canada. Ilya specializes in building better IT organizations and can be reached at ibogorad@bizvortex.com or (905) 278 4753. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/bizvortex