In 2006, I accepted a leadership position at UNC to which Hotline, Labs, and Classroom Design reported. Our charter was to do great things and be agents of change. Despite the great expectations attached to the new role, it was difficult to imagine getting everyone in the organization to agree to even a modest change for very long.
Our budget enabled me to enlist a consultant, and so I hired the best I could find: George Smart of Strategic Development, who infused me and my excellent management team with an alternate perspective on leadership, organizational development and change management.
For our first project, we transitioned the UNC campus from "free printing" to swipe-and-release printing. Various ITS units had made abortive attempts over the previous six years, each time arguing that it could not be accomplished for the lack of "political will." (That's what is said when one can't coerce the Chancellor to do your dirty work and issue a decree.)
Using George's philosophy (calling it a "technique" might mislead you to think we engaged in some kind of trickery, when in fact, we were inclusive and transparent at all levels throughout the project) we accomplished a successful transition in 90-days that was heralded by the student government and, more importantly, the student newspaper as a timely success. First-year savings exceeded $1M. It was the first of several successful initiatives.
The Context: The Call for Innovation
Last Fall, we presented two areas that merit outside-the-box thinking: simplified classroom technology and projector lifecycle strategies. We challenged you to reject the status quo and to adopt a more active role to overcome the daunting challenges (technical as well as process-oriented challenges).
At the time, we neglected to provide a framework for successfully re-thinking these areas. This first installment shares some observations rooted in the process for change that we developed with George Smart. It concludes with a few simple steps to help get started so that you can begin to make change-that-sticks in your organization.
Why is lasting change elusive?
Few quarters exist in which administrations do not routinely entreat the masses to "be more innovative, harr-rumph!" The results of such sloganeering often fall short of over-hyped expectations and those that achieve measurable progress rarely hold their ground. Why is that?
1. People cannot be expected to innovate-on-demand. In the trenches, line managers and their reports shake their heads and quietly dismiss such campaigns as "someone's bright idea," perhaps an oblique suggestion that the special "someone" in question is neither bright, nor known to be a fountain of higher cognition.
2. The problem is not that the staff are not "team players." This is not to say that innovation itself is pop-business-school puffery. Genuine innovation (yes, it does exist outside of Apple) is real and life-changing, however, expecting to achieve it by decree may indicate somewhat simplistic views of leadership and organizational development. [From the Editor: In the spirit of full-disclosure, the author has personally confessed to numerous transgressions in this regard.]
3. Innovation necessitates personal change (and occasionally, spare-change). Real change requires moving from a place that is known (predictable and comfortable) to (what may seem to be) an other-worldly realm of uncertainty. Bad conditions tend to persist not because folks just love dysfunction and inefficiency, but because of the unexpressed fear of the proposed alternate universe. "Sure, things are bad now, but they could be a whole lot worse…"
4. We value knowing why something ought to be changed, and especially why we should put forth the effort (or stick our necks out) to make it happen. Why do things differently? What is so bad about the way things are?
5. Organizations are conditioned by the consi
stent failures of top-down e
dicts. When change comes by decree, such as through "new policy" or reorganization, it rarely lasts. (When it does last, it rarely produces the expected outcome). The masses shake their heads and mumble, "Why bother? They (the new administration) will get bored and move on to some other hair-brained idea in a week or two."
6. Buy-in cannot be coerced. If grumbling and foot-dragging could be neatly translated, we might hear our people say, "Change is difficult, especially when it requires me to change something I'm comfortable with. If I'm going to put myself out, there ought to be a compelling reason, else why should I bother at all?" The masses cannot move in unison without understanding a) what is broken; and b) what would a future-state look like with the problem eradicated.
How can I start practicing change agency in my own shop?
Line managers and their staff are expert problem-solvers who live to sink their teeth into a real challenge. So, when we present a pre-digested solution (however well-thought-out) without vetting the problem and priorities, we devalue their critical contribution to day-to-day organizational success.
Avoid suggesting all-you-gotta-do-is -type solutions. Such simplifications are what get most organizations into the acute pickles they now ignore (until the next bright idea).
1. Instead of delivering marching orders, present your top-three headaches (you'll want to begin with an exhaustive list that you can prioritize) and the unfortunate consequences of those headaches. (Be sure to present your case clearly, leaving no room for misinterpretation.)
2. Without suggesting a solution, describe what their world would be like in the absence of that problem. Be sure to seek their confirmation that that the problems you described are valid (most groups can agree on a problem, it is the solution that causes all the trouble.)
3. Ask the open-ended question, "what would need to happen to get from point-A to point-B in X-weeks?" and take note.
Use these observations as conversation-starters in your own organization and, by all means, report back to us via the forum or in the comments at the end of this article and let us know the conditions on the ground at your org.
||by Joe Schuch|