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The Science of Change

By Katherine Craig

Ottawa Human Resource Professionals Association, Up-Date Magazine, May 2013


"People don't resist change, they resist being changed."    - Peter Senge

As leaders we spend a great deal of time trying to figure out how to implement change. Numerous consultants have grown rich guiding these efforts. I often hear people say the following:

We tried to implement that process but everyone seems to have given up.

We're planning to start that system when people aren't so busy.

The irony is that we don't have enough resources to figure out how to find those efficiencies!

So what's going on here? Why do we seem hopelessly stuck? Is the modern workforce hopelessly apathetic? Great news: there is hope! There's nothing wrong with the spirit of your workforce. They are just waiting for an invitation.

The Invitation
Imagine a door. Imagine someone appears, opens the door and says you must go through that door immediately. What are your first thoughts now as you read? Most people say to me, "I want to know what's on the other side of the door before I go through. Why do they want me to go through? I want more answers before I move." Imagine that the more you delay the more insistent the person is that you go through the door. They try being nice to you and that quickly turns to subtle intimidation. Finally they lose all pretense of politeness and try pushing you through the door physically. How do you behave once they try to physically force you through the door? I suspect that most of us would start to put up quite a struggle at this point.

I'm sure by now you might have guessed that this analogy is quite similar to how we attempt to implement changes in our workforce. For bigger, more important projects we might have a couple of focus groups, send out an FAQ, or develop a communication plan. How many of these tools are top-down? How many other changes are implemented with nothing more than a memo that announces, "Effective immediately we will now be using Form B as the new protocol"?

Don't get me wrong, as a coach I am all about a well-developed communication plan but even the best laid plans can be undermined by the front line manager who says, "Ours is not to wonder why, ours is just to do or die." Yikes - heave ho through the door! The science of change comes to life in the discussions on the front line. Long after the communication plan has been carefully set, discussions happen. It's here that passiveness can end and action can begin.

The Rule of Three
If you are someone who wants to implement a change remember this: people want to be invited through the door (change), not pushed, pulled or dragged. Make no mistake, as a leader you are not only required but expected to implement regular change. Don't ever apologise for that! Following the Rule of Three isn't about giving someone the opportunity to opt in or opt out of the change. It's about being a leader, and getting everyone on board. Here are the rules to create that invitation.

People want choices
We all understand there is a hierarchy in life. There are laws, rules, and a work order that must be obeyed. But this does not extend to micromanagement. Within every rule, there are choices, and people want the ability to express themselves and their values with these choices. For example, there are rules of the road but you are able to decide what colour and make of vehicle you want to drive.

People want control
Everyone has a different speed when working toward the goal. They will instinctively pick a speed that delivers the best results for them. Telling them to go faster or slower will only frustrate them and underscore that you are trying to manipulate them. Instead try to understand their speed, and if you require them to go more quickly find out what barriers that person might remove to allow a quicker march.

People need trust
Has anyone at work ever asked for your opinion or asked you to help with something and you find out later it was just a formality? That your input wasn't needed or even wanted? Did you want to help out again? You probably felt quite angry or betrayed as the trust you had with that person had been broken. When leaders tell people, "This is the target and these are the deliverables that need to happen" then those same leaders need to believe that they hired professionals who can get the job done right and on time. The instant the leader swoops in to "fix things" or "move them along" then the control and choices are taken away from the team and trust is broken.

But I just want to help
Leaders say to me, "But I just want to help" or, "If I don't do it, it won't get done." These are excuses for micromanagement, lack of confidence in the team, or a lack of understanding of the leadership role. An orchestra conductor is frequently capable of playing all the instruments in the orchestra but never, ever steps off the podium in the middle of a concert to start playing one of the instruments. It's frequently hard to resist this urge, especially when you have your doubts about a team member or feel the pressure of having a project come out just right. This is normal. All leaders have felt this way on occasion, so I encourage you to think about the long term consequences of stepping in to help out. Ask yourself these questions:

  • "What message have I passed to the person I helped and how will this impact his or her future performance?"
  • "What message does this send to my boss about my ability to be a leader rather than just a doer?"
  • "How does my helping help or hinder succession development in the team?"

Ask questions...then ask some more
So, how do you make the Rule of Three jump from the page to your leadership practice? Great news, you don't need a special course or training for this one! The answer is in the tool of good questioning. Questions will save you and make your team energized and self-motivated.

Think of the concept of leading - it's about lighting the path. When you tell someone how to do something the solution works perfectly for you. However, you need them to embrace a solution so that they can, and will, demonstrate initiative while you are out of the room. They need to discover a solution that will work for them and their skill set to reach the project target. The underlying message from the leader needs to be a certainty that the person is capable (isn't that why they are on the team?), and in figuring out the solutions for themselves they are preparing for larger roles.

Here are some questions you can use:

  • Could you walk me through your plan?
  • What barriers might challenge you? How can you address those?
  • I'm not sure I follow you on (point B) - could you elaborate?
  • What are the risks and how are you planning for them?
  • What's your plan for getting the project back on track?
  • Have you identified your resources? How do you plan to obtain/bring them on board?
  • What makes you excited about this project?

The moment the person answers your first question they are exercising their choices and control and you have engagement. Believe that people want to do a good job and though their solution might not be the one you'd chose, so long as they hit the project target on time and to spec then you have success, both on the project and with team development. Top talent looks long and hard for leaders who believe in the talent and initiative of their people.

A client once asked me whether they have to sit like the guru at the top of the mountain all the time. Not at all! You ask questions when you are leading, you provide answers when you are following. When your boss invites you to his office and you are asked for input thatís the time to demonstrate your years of experience through smart and strategic answers.

High Performance teams: High Performance leaders
Use the skill of questioning in your meetings, your one-on-ones, in project planning, basically whenever you want engagement and team/individual development.

As a leader you set the performance bar. Micromanaging or "helping" sets the bar low. Macro management or asking questions sets it high. You may have a team member say with frustration, "Just tell me the answer!" Resist the urge; every time you tell someone the answer they haven't learned anything other than the ability to get you to do their work. Push them, push yourself.

Be patient with yourself in applying this skill. It takes practise to be patient with someone else's thought process. If you find yourself starting to jump in, cut yourself off. Reassure them you believe in their ability to do the work to a high standard. Reassure them you believe in their ability to fix whatever may be going off track. This simple tool will provide you with significant and long-lasting rewards.



Katherine Craig is the founder & CEO of Spearhead Executive Coaching, a dynamic organization dedicated to helping individuals and companies achieve greater success through the delivery of high-performance coaching programs. To comment on her story, send a message to Katherine@spearheadexecutivecoaching.com.