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Four Questions Your Change Plan Must Answer: Part 3: What are your challenges?

Updated: Aug 10, 2018

There are two kinds of challenges you will experience in the change process:

1. Common challenges of any change process

2. Particular idiosyncrasies of your organization

We are going to focus mostly on common challenges. That’s because even though we have this human tendency to think our situations are unique, they’re not. Human beings are far more alike than they are different.

As Daniel Gilbert, a Harvard researcher on happiness says, we forget that we all breathe, eat, sleep, mate, play, get afraid, get embarrassed, feel love, get angry, get protective—and the list goes on. The human drama in organizations is just a reflection of this shared experience.

We also look at the peculiarities of our organizations. We want to know when our organization has gone above and beyond, or below and beneath, so we might help leadership become aware of this. Mostly, though, we’ll concentrate on common challenges, those pesky things that are usually simple, but rarely easy to overcome.

Our Shared Challenges in Change

1. Resist the jump to solutions

Inclusive, stick-to-it, results-getting change processes work best when we start together.

But what often happens is, we swoop right across the chasm of the change journey and jump to action. We start off great—get everybody on board, get people pumped up, and then we jump to the step act together, only to find that there is little togetherness.

Why do we jump? Lots of reasons.

First, we’re paid for action. Our jobs are to get stuff done.

Second, it usually makes sense on the surface—after all, we’ve done our homework, looked at the issues.

Third, that’s what gets us recognized and promoted—taking action, getting s*** done.

And last, make space? Really? It feels like a waste of time.

Every time we’ve initiated a change though, resistance showed up. It takes different forms—people drag their feet, forget to share information, get jealous, feel left out or just plain refuse to play. And alas, the IT change or customer service difference we said would be done in a year, is not fully integrated in two.

As painful and against common sense as this seems, remember this byline we stole from a favorite client: We’ll go as fast as we can and as slow as we have to.

Making space means respecting people’s need to do it themselves. We’ve always believed that people do what they create. That requires opening up the time, the space and the place for people to step in, to think, to experiment and to practice.

Because wait, aren’t we also paid to think and to innovate? Our job as change experts is to make sure that side of the work equation doesn’t get lost in fray of daily work.

2. Practice the hyper-valuable skill of paying attention

We grossly underestimate how important it is to pay attention. And there is nothing more important in change work.

Attention can be three things

1) A flashlight—orienting us

2) A juggler—holding multiple demands, prioritizing and bringing executive control

3) A flashing yellow light—don’t know what’s out there, danger, be ready

The change leader learns to pay attention to all three kinds of attention. This is where the sense and respond work kicks in.

Sometimes we need to be in exploration mode like a flashlight—orienting ourselves to the problem. And this is why we need to make space in a change. Rushing is only needed in an emergency.

Sometimes people need help with juggling all the spinning plates. It’s our job as change experts to help them see the potential chaos and stress that leaks out when attention becomes splintered and weakened by the splitter cable of competing priorities and poor decision making.

Sometimes it’s not easy to see the flashing yellow light in the fog of confusion, so we slow things down to pay attention. This helps us figure out which strand to pick up next.

Attention is why we’re here. The day to day hustle, the flying signals—these all make it hard to pay attention. That’s our job as change experts. We pull out the flashlight, pull down a few spinning plates, and make sure the flashing yellow lights are seen in the fog. And we teach people how to pay attention in a whole new way.

3. Create a concrete image of what else is possible

A few years back we happened to be in New York a few weeks running and visited the same Starbucks each time.

The service was pretty poor the first couple of times, and then the third time we noticed there were three people talking to customers in line, taking orders, surveying customers about what they wanted most from this particular Starbucks.

Two things were radically different that day. First, even though the line was just as long as before, the attention customers were receiving lightened the mood and energized the space. Second, service was actually improving by the minute as we were standing there.

We noticed two people at the counter and went over to find out what was going on. Two managers told us the story. This was one of the busiest Starbucks in the city—with the worst complaints about service and efficiency. They decided to close for half a day and have all the employees experience what it was like to wait in line and feel the tension. Then they got busy redesigning how they would fix it themselves

We serendipitously experienced redesign in action. The difference was tangible—people were in a better mood, the line went faster, people felt attended to.

There’s nothing like feeling, seeing and hearing the experience to help you shape it into what you want. That Starbucks has had continual high ratings since that day.

When people touch the change, turn it around in their hands, they can connect with what else is possible. It is our job to create prototypes, whether of service or product, that allow people to step into the role, taste the candy and build the momentum to continually recreate it.

What to do about those idiosyncrasies?

Even if we help the changing organization to resist running headlong into solutions, and even if we get people to slow down to pay attention, we will still run into some peculiarities in an organization’s culture. This can range from an ethnic supermarket too rooted in its traditional culture to a product delivery service too rooted in always breaking the system

That’s called being stuck. And stuck organizations are really tough. They actually can’t see the assumptions they make every day about how they believe the world works. And this means, as the change expert, you’re pushing your spaghetti strand uphill.

This is where you meet one of the toughest challenges in change work. Do you dance around the problem, trying to work your way in from an outside strand? Do you operate as catalyst and counter-culture radical?

Ultimately, it all depends on whether the leadership has the stomach for this. Because if they don’t, you will end up as window dressing. This means there will be times in change work when you have to call the game. Window dressing is a slippery slope—it ends up doing more harm than good. And if leadership is up for this, then the game is really on and things will heat up.

The challenge is, it’s hard to call. Do we try one more thing in hopes that this will be the strand of spaghetti that gets peoples’ attention? We wish it were crystal clear. But it’s not. This is where paying attention to your instincts counts for a lot. Your attention skills are needed here more than anyplace else. And your guts to call it quits when it’s time or push in when it’s time to step up.

This is exciting work. But it’s not for the faint of heart. Keep your eyes open, your heart open and your antennae up!

Last up in the series:

Four Questions Your Change Plan Must Answer:

Part 4: What do you do?

Tags: change plan, challenges, idiosyncrasies, leadership

To read Part 1: Where Are You Now? Click here

To read Part 2: Where are you going? Click Here

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