Most people would agree that there is no one right way to lead change, and this is generally true. It depends on the situation, which involves several factors such as culture, the market environment, the history and tradition of the organization, the prevailing management philosophy, how well the organization is performing, etc. Within this context, however, there is definitely a systematic approach which can be universally applied for optimizing change leadership. It consists of a set of basic questions, followed by specific deliverables that should be developed prior to implementation of your planned changes.
The Essential Questions to Ask
1. WHY do we need to change? The emphasis here should be on the underlying causes rather than the symptoms.
2. What is our desired future state? A good way to think about this is to “paint the picture” of what your organization will look like after you’ve successfully lead the change process. In conventional leadership theory terms, this is your Vision. A corollary question to also consider is this: What will success look like?
3. What should we keep, what needs to be revised, and what should we discontinue completely? A common mistake is to assume that everything should be changed, but this is rarely prudent. In many instances, there are processes, systems, policies, programs, etc., that have proven historically effective and will likely remain so going forward. The key is to analyze each of them in relation to your Vision, so that you can determine which ones will contribute to achieving this and which ones won’t. Also, it is very important for efficiency reasons to identify activities that add no value to Vision attainment. Although it is difficult to completely stop doing something that you’re accustomed to, the real gains in overall productivity usually derive from this.
4. What is a realistic and achievable timeframe, and what are the key milestones? As with any complex, multi-function initiative, the change process will need to be actively monitored and managed. This requires a master schedule and pre-determined checkpoints.
5. How will we measure our progress? Metrics are critical for evaluating whether or not your changes are producing the desired results. Since your Vision is typically stated in qualitative terms, you will need to augment this by identifying specific measurable targets for its main components.
Key Deliverables to Create
1. Change Overview: This is a 1-pager to be used in introducing the changes you intend to implement. It should be a formal Word document with bullets that makes it easy for your team to absorb and understand. In terms of a format and template, you can certainly use the essential questions noted above with your corresponding answers. For Question 3, you can simply state your decision-making criteria (details will be shown on the Current Practices Assessment – see below).
2. Current Practices Assessment: This should be another formal document that lists your primary processes, systems, programs, policies, etc. You should classify them into one of three categories:
- Retain as is
- Modify so that it is better aligned with your Vision
- Discontinue because it adds no value to Vision attainment
3. Master Schedule: This should include the main milestones plus assigned roles and responsibilities, where appropriate. You can consider this the “working plan” that will enable you to track progress. It also provides your team with a clear set of expectations. To ensure a complete understanding by your team, you should briefly describe your planned review process. This should include when, how often, and how. Using a standardized reporting template for these performance reviews is always a good idea.
4. Key Metrics and Goals: This should be another 1-pager that simply describes how you will measure success. For each metric you identify, there should be an associated goal with a specific timeframe. Since substantive changes usually take at least a year, your goals should be further out in time. The milestones in your master schedule will address the interim steps.
Guidelines and Tips for Success
1. When embarking on a major change initiative, the single most important thing to establish is WHY. If you don’t get your team to acknowledge and accept the need for change, you will not be able to obtain the necessary buy-in to lead it successfully.
2. Many people have experienced supposed change initiatives that consisted of words only; there was no master plan and no disciplined management of the process itself. To prove that your approach will be different and more effective, you must make it very clear that you are not merely saying the right things. Having a master plan and the other formal documents described above will go a long way to enhancing your credibility.
3. Throughout the overall process, never lose sight of your Vision/desired future state. This is the ultimate “touchstone” for everything you’re doing. In all likelihood, you will have to remind your staff of this on a fairly regular basis.
4. Make a point of continuously providing updates and status to your team, especially when they are meeting their milestones. This shows your commitment to the change, and more importantly makes your employees feel vested in its success. Celebrating each positive step with the whole team and recognizing the individuals who make the largest contributions are commonly used techniques for building momentum and reinforcing support.
By using the five basic questions and then creating the four key documents/deliverables discussed in this article, you will have a far better opportunity to lead change successfully – regardless of the situation you are confronting.
Become the leader that can take your organization through changing times. Learn all the leadership skills you need to know with these AMA resources and seminars: