At one Fortune 500 insurance company, the IT team had noticed an uptick in quality issues, delays, and dissatisfaction among project sponsors. In response to these unsettling trends, the chief information officer (CIO) decided to adopt a standard software development methodology and replicable project management practices. The intended benefits of this shift — higher quality and reliability — were attractive, but the trade-offs were daunting. Because they would no longer have the license to customize process and standards, project managers would need to give up independence and creativity. Coders would have to make similar sacrifices, as well as face increased oversight through peer reviews.
To address these concerns, the CIO asked a cross-functional group to consider two questions: If the division adopted the new framework, what would the organization gain? And equally important, what would it lose? Participants were invited to weigh the proposed change for themselves and to consider it from every angle — including the reasons the initiative might not work. They brainstormed solutions to potential project roadblocks. These discussions helped build support and diminish the likelihood that people would retrench when challenged by the inevitable costs, frustrations, and hard work of change. In the end, the new methodology and practices were adopted in half the time recommended to achieve the goal, embedded in the company’s culture, and recognized for their contributions to customer satisfaction and project quality.
These were not your typical “socializing” conversations, intended to make people feel included in decisions that have already been made. Instead, these dialogues reflected a departure from many of the current norms for change management. Traditionally, leaders have started with the belief that the change they have launched is patently right. Its merits are not in question, they believe; at most, it might need minor tweaks. With this stance, the work of change becomes convincing people and overcoming their resistance, and all too often, box-checking exercises take the place of frank discussion.
Yet we have found that the most enduring change initiatives — those that drive real results — are based on leaders’ assumption that they are seeing only part of the picture and thus need to learn more. These leaders ask hard questions and engage in trade-offs as early as possible, talking with those who raise concerns not to gain their compliance, but to improve, refine, and pressure test the proposed change.
No easy answers
We are living in a historic moment, one in which trade-offs are central to many of our discussions: Leaders in the public and private sector are weighing the potential costs (economic, medical, and psychological) of opening institutions while COVID-19 is still spreading against the potential costs of staying closed. For many of the hard questions these leaders are asking, there are no good answers. But decisions still need to be made.
When leaders launch an initiative, their ability to achieve “both/and” is not yet proven. By both/and, we mean identifying a solution that moves beyond the historical limits of an either/or trade-off, an idea advanced by the polarity management methodology of management thinker and author Barry Johnson. For instance, companies used to choose either slow, costly, data-driven decisions or fast, intuitive judgment calls. But the use of advanced analytics now allows companies to make real-time decisions that are data-driven.
Yet when leaders assume their answer is the answer, they tend to approach change as they would a political campaign — heavy on slogans and focused on numerical targets akin to contributions and votes. The process can feel forced; people are engaged solely to be converted to the leader’s “side,” rather than to participate in a dialogue about the potential implications of the plan. Leaders speak but don’t listen. Or they assume that a lack of feedback reflects agreement and acceptance among their constituents.
Success under this approach is typically measured by increases in compliance (“40 percent of staff have logged on to the new ERP system”) and decreases in resistance (“the number of employees indicating the new ERP system will help make their work more effective has increased by 30 percent since last quarter”). Leaders reward those who quickly conform, not realizing that these conversions often represent superficial commitments, not true allegiance or even an accurate understanding of the new way. And because hard questions are minimized, teams may comply with a change that won’t work once it gets underway.
For employees, the pressure to change without truly understanding or committing to the initiative is an unfortunate fact of organizational life. People become used to the expectation that they will limit independent thinking and suspend disbelief, regardless of the lessons of their prior experience. If employees have a few questions, that is usually acceptable, but more can invite censure or ridicule, or, in the worst cases, can be career-damaging, even if such questions represent legitimate critiques or sound ideas for improvement.
Consider the case of a leader of an accounting services business who created a consolidated national office to replace a collection of smaller state units. Although the new structure would save on overhead, the company’s services were heavily influenced by state regulations. Employees with the expertise needed to work in their state office could now be assigned to a case anywhere in the country. Many would lack the knowledge needed to do their job effectively — a concern immediately raised by employees when the plan was announced. But the leader was dismissive, instead telling people to stop “harping on the negative.” Those who raised the issue again could tell they were at risk of being branded as resisters. One even remarked that “it was like a cult”; she felt forced to conform or face social and professional isolation.
In the end, the new national structure struggled to deliver for customers in states where employees were not well-versed in local regulations, in ways the resisters had predicted and hoped to avoid. Imagine if the leader had asked, “How might we consolidate into a national structure, but still ensure customers benefit from the regulatory knowledge each of you has developed over time?” Instead of resisting, his team would have been brainstorming how to make the idea work. And instead of failing to meet expectations, they could have been delivering excellent service at scale.
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