Tactics for Leading Change

A leader is pondering, what is the best way to approach my staff about sustainability? How do I create a vision that others will share with me, so I am not a lone wolf, howling in a wilderness of cubicles?

Great question!

Part of this question is answered by the qualities that the leader actually possesses. Talking about sustainability or any other change won’t be effective unless the change agent is trusted by the people she is trying to influence.

Influence, by the way, whether you have authority in an organization or not, is the only capital that really works to create long-term, behavioral change. Letting go of any ideas you may have about being able to enforce a change is helpful in this process – after all, as a colleague of mine, John Springer says –

You can lead by Inspiration, or Desperation. Which do you choose?

But back to strategies for change. We will talk more about leadership later.

The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook by Peter Senge et al., (a classic work on systems thinking in organizational development) makes the point that leaders want to create the commitment and focus that a shared vision can bring to an organization. Building a Shared Vision can do just that.

Bryan Smith’s article in The Fifth Discipline Fieldbook discusses 5 starting points for building shared vision. He notes that different organizations should start at different places, given the practical realities of where different companies are. (The following is a direct excerpt from his article, on p.314.)

  1. Telling: The “boss” knows what the vision should be, and the organization is going to have to follow it;
  2. Selling: The “boss” knows what the vision should be, but needs the organization to “buy in” before proceeding;
  3. Testing: The “boss” has an idea about what the vision should be, or several ideas, and wants to know the organization’s reactions, before proceeding;
  4. Consuliting: The “boss” is putting together a vision, and wants creative input from the organization before proceeding;
  5. Co-creating: The “boss” and “members” of the organization, through a collaborative process, build a shared vision together.

He makes the point that before proceeding, you should objectively assess where your company is, and then make a plan for how to move to the next stage.

Figuring out Where You Should Start – A Case Study

I have a client who is transitioning from one leader to another leader. The old leader had a fairly traditionalist model; he asked people to do what they should do, and expected that they follow through with what he asked them to.

The new leader had a very different idea; while he wasn’t entirely sure how, he knew that he wanted his staff to work as a team; to be self-motivated to improve the company. We started with an executive team teambuilding, and from there, discussed how to help his whole company work differently.

He had a vision of teamwork – but had to go about it differently depending on who in the company he was working with. With his executive team, we had spent three days together building trust and respect, co-creating a vision for the company, agreeing on strategy. We then spent many months working together as a team over time. With them, he used a combination of testing, consulting, and co-creating. The Executive Team wanted strong leadership from him, as they had received in the past, but still usually wanted to consult – a significant change from how it had been in the past. But as the Executive Team itself became stronger, they also became stronger, more creative leaders with their own staff, and likewise more attached to co-creating together as an Executive Team. Now, they negotiate about when they will co-create, when they will consult with the leader, and when the leader will test with them, but reserve the right to make the decision.

But the company leader also wanted to change how the rest of his staff would work together. And the rest of the company was more accustomed to a strong authority figure who governed mostly through telling, as opposed to a leader who was willing to share some of his authority in exchange for increased creativity and commitment on their part. For his staff, this leader spends some time telling, a lot of time selling, and has been making inroads to testing and consulting, with specific individuals or committees, at specific times. Quite a bit of his tactic has been to negotiate the boundaries of collaboration over time, so that both he and the company get what they need to keep the company running. Some initiatives have worked well; some are still a work-in-progress.

So, how does this translate to creating a successful change initiative?

As a change agent, depending on the authority you have, you will have to assess for yourself who is ready for co-creating, and who is not. There are many factors that influence how someone is ready – the level of trust, the expectations and history between the parties, how willing the different parties are to negotiate their needs. It is a risky thing for a leader to allow his authority to be handed over to the decision of the group. In fact, in this case, there was a point when the Executive Team and Company Leader handed its authority over too quickly, without thorougly laying out the boundaries of what they needed to make sure the company stayed on track as a whole. Everyone ended up unsatisfied with the results, and the leaders had to back-track to telling. Fortunately, enough trust and respect had been built up at that point that the loss wasn’t nearly as significant as it would have been the year before.

Both the leader and the group have to be ready for co-creating. Both have to be practiced at asking for what they need, as well as giving in return.

However, there are ways to fast-track to co-creating a vision. Next posting – how do you create a vision? And how can you fast-track it to achieve long-term commitment and focus?