No problem changing

On his blog: All Things Workplace, Steve Roesler has been running a very useful series of posts on change. Yesterday, in response to a comment I left on episode seven: Change: Nah, I'd Rather Die. Really, Steve shared his familiarity with an exemplary "change master"(thanks Steve!).  This provides a wonderful example of the possibility I'm exploring with how to disappear the problems of getting change to happen.

1. After diagnosing the organizational situation, he made a well-informed, unilateral decision to implement certain systems. These are all new to the employee population but make sense to them. However, they are also radical.

2. He spends huge amounts of time traveling, listening, acknowledging, and coaching individuals and groups. He doesn't move from the message at all. It's clear what needs to happen.

The result, as of now: People are following his lead, believe in his decisions, and are willing to do what it takes to make the changes for the greater good. There is no question he won't answer, no phone call or email left unreturned, and all involved FEEL understood. Even if the discomfort level is high because of the learning curve it doesn't matter. People will tell you that things have already changed as a result of his willingness to move ahead while constantly expressing his trust that they will "get it" and look back after each step.

To work with the people being made uncomfortable by change like this, I'm proposing that two hurdles had to be cleared by this leader:

  • Instead of thinking others had to be the first to change, it had to become clear to him (or her) by reflective practice, how the situation calls for being: the change, the first to change and the example of changing without a problem.
  • Instead of seeing all the competing frames as obstacles to change, they would appear to be "no problem" to nurturing the change and understanding those involved.

There are at least four ways for the obstacles, interference and sabotage of change efforts to be "no problem". A "change master" like the one Steve characterizes could be functioning with any of these concepts in mind.

The conditions are ripe for this. When we see the big picture, we realize when and how changes need to occur. We see extremes that attract their opposite, stagnation begging for a breakup and tensions seeking resolution. We have a sense of timing for making changes and for assimilating a recent change.

The process includes this. When we understand how changes unfold in phases, we have a way to value all the setbacks. Rather than control the happenstance to stick with a plan, we trust what occurs as "part of the process". By allowing what unfolds, we set a tone of not resisting, complaining about or blaming others.

The meaning of this is up for grabs. When we see a change meaning different things to different people, we encourage their subjective interpretations. Rather than put a lid on spin, we validate the ways each makes sense at first. We then nurture changing perceptions applied to the change as if the meaning is idiosyncratic and evolving.  We position "changing frames" as part of the change process, rather than an obstacle to overcome.

The story of this continues to unfold. When we see a narrative structure in the change, we live in suspense. We wonder what will happen next to surprise us. We expect the unexpected and avoid disappointment. We welcome reversals that keep things interesting and value the antagonists who bring out the best traits in the protagonists. We see foreshadowing of turning points and payoffs when people change their minds.

Without practicing these ways of "no problem changing", staying on message will backfire. Expecting people to get it will come across as controlling their intentions and coercing them to stop succeeding on their own terms. The people will feel they are being forced to change instead of feeling understood. They will be clear what they are supposed to get and will be clearly opposed, defiant and hurt.

When changing is no problem, it works to stay on message and be clear how people need to get it. The people are not the problem. Their hesitation or resistance is not a problem. The change is not a problem either. Instead there is the timing of this, the process to go through for this, the evolving meaning of this and the fascinating story of this.


  1. Steve Roesler10/26/2007 10:40 AM

    Thanks for the kind mention as well as the wonderful extension of the elements involved in the process.

    Tom, you noted the leader's need for his own "reflective practice." That is, in fact, quite true. This individual staved off pressures from Wall Street and shareholders to make moves quickly. Rather, he calmly gained a complete understanding of the situation in the time needed to do so.

    The result?

    He was able to explain the need for the changes in ways that employees, analysts, shareholders, and other constituencies understood to be true and well thought-out. As a result, the ultimate actions did not meet resistance from any one of those constituencies even though some of the measures were painful.

    In a day when "action" is a rallying cry, perhaps we should start lifting up those who only take action after thoughtful reflection and stop rewarding those who charge ahead full-speed as if the momentum itself is the key to success.

    I'm sure all of us have done the latter: charging ahead enthusiastically only to find that we were getting to the wrong place rather quickly:-)

    Keep writing...

  2. Steve:
    Thanks for filling in more details of this inspiring scenario, and for showing how the leader's reflective practice avoided so many pitfalls that are too common in the world of managed change.