Two Insights about Change Every Leader Needs to Understand

change signThere are two common dynamics I see in almost every change project.  The positive dynamic is nurture – the ability to see change as a system wide interaction of behaviors, belief, decisions, relationships and new actions.  The negative dynamic is the ex nihilio fallacy - the thought that stating the need for change equates with actually executing a change.  Recognizing the difference between these two dynamics means the difference between success and often painful failure. Change requires constant nurture

Change is like planting and growing seeds in a harsh environment.  It takes constant nurture and patient repetition. By nurture I mean a leader must continuously re-check the validity of the original change goals and ask to know if routine action and behavior is actually moving toward the desired end or working against it.

When thinking about this kind of nurture messaging is important. It is easy to fall prey to the two most common traps of non-communication when the pressure is on to execute on change. The first trap is  mindless repetition of the change slogan as though a slogan repeated often enough becomes believable.  The second trap is head-down avoidance of all interaction in the mistaken wish that if controversy is avoided it will melt away like snow in the spring. When leading change it is important to remind everyone on the team about what the change intends to accomplish. Keep the goals (the ends) in plain sight.  This is especially important in light of the fact that every change requires a change in thinking and organizational culture to be successful.

By avoiding communication managers end up rooting for change without addressing the very real inconsistencies and operational gaps inherent in any change. Lack of two-way communication that interrogate the present in light of the future runs the risk of destroying the adoption of change. Interrogating reality is essential to success.

However, managers sometimes mistake this interrogation with the rise of negativity. In a quest to quell so-called negativity these managers fail to engage the operational questions, observations and concerns of their employees – employees who must work out the change in behavior and thinking. Limiting conversations, even difficult ones, will not effect change.  Limiting conversations simply affirms that managers are only engaged in the corporate dance of morons who talk change, behave as usual and change their tune every time someone higher up the organization reads a new book, announces a new program or initiates a new direction as the next flavor of the month.

Ex nihilio creative speech only works if you are God

The ex nihilio fallacy is a view that because a leader has power he/she is capable of decreeing change into reality. Ex nihilio apparently works for God when creating the world but it does not work for managers or other leaders attempting to carry out change. Even the best plans for change end up dogged by questions, bugs, inconsistencies and gaps between expected outcomes and actual results.  I watch leaders implicitly appeal to ex nihilio decrees instead of doing the hard work of understanding the system in which they have attempted change. It takes hard work to outline new processes, train and coach people to execute on new processes, and encourage new behaviors and feedback lines.

Ex nihilio management behaviors show up in statements like:

  • There is no excuse they should know this already.
  • This is simple, just do it.
  • If you can’t do your job I will get someone who can.
  • We talked about this already why aren't you doing it?

Ex nihilio management behaviors assume that spoken wishes about the future actually create processes, behaviors, and outcomes all miraculously aligned around what the manager intended to communicate.  The danger of course is that the meaning conceptualized by the manager rarely ever is heard or interpreted in exactly the same way by the listener.  When ex nihilio managers face the routine task of clarifying their intent they (1) avoid repeating what they intend – thus indicating that they themselves are unclear about what they really want to have completed and/or (2) resort to tirades about poor execution forcing everyone to hide until a clear reprimand indicates a violation of intent or silence affirms that one has stumbled into the right action.

I find several other behaviors that parallel ex nihilio change management.  Watch for these:

  • Hyperbolized expectations.  Change is limited in part by the premature or unreasonable promises made about its outcome by managers fearful of conflict.
  • Impatience. Impatience causes managers to prematurely abandoned change because of fear, boredom or frustration with poor implementation.
  • Indolence. Change processes fall flat when managers fail to assess outcomes resulting in formalizing change. Acting in indolence is like changing course then assuming the course change was an end in itself and not a means to an end - it is a form of resource mismanagement.
  • Ignoring unexpected consequences. Change reveals previously hidden or compensated weaknesses in skill/ability.  Ex nihilio change management not only fails to expect this reality it also fails to constructively address it when it does arise.
  • Experiential distortion. Change easily morphs to recognizable or familiar forms as a means of managing ambiguity. Change is fundamentally a learning cycle not a process differential.  Ignoring learning as change results in change in name only. The ambiguity inherent in change obfuscates communication leading to heightened anxiety and siloing. Ambiguity creates new power alliances that present unexpected resistance to breakthroughs of innovation. Some of these new alliances stay dormant in the short run and erupt unexpectedly when apparently slight offenses set of an avalanche of emotional reaction.

Conclusion

There is not a successful company or organization around today that isn't in the middle of deep change. Rapidly shifting consumer behaviors, changing regulatory environments, stake holder demands, competitive pressures, morphing technology all challenge the routines managers and employees use to define themselves.

If leaders cannot define predictability in the face of rapid and discontinuous change two things are certain. First, the leader will show more ex nihilio change mismanagement behavior. Second, employees will define themselves around routines of resistance thus artificially limiting their ability to adapt while simultaneously undermining valid change.

In the face of the chaos of change leaders need to return to the necessity of nurturing change.  The simple rule of thumb is this – if you are not completely sick of talking about the change project you initiated and if you have not yet experienced the frustration of describing it a dozen different ways you are not yet clear in where you want to go and what the execution of your intent should look like.

Help your employees define themselves by their competencies and value as creative people versus the routines that define what they do at work today.  The reality is that the way we work, in fact the kind of work we do today may have little resemblance to the work we end up doing tomorrow. On the other hand who your employees are today and the competencies they have learned are transferable.  People remain vital and relevant to the degree they understand their value to the organization stems from a commitment to a learning. Learners use experience to differentiate the opportunity in problems and outcomes from the means of getting there.

New behaviors and beliefs show sustainable change. Wise leaders watch their employee’s behaviors and beliefs. The accomplishment of short-term goals indicates milestones but they do not indicate a change of thinking. Remind yourself that if you ever grow tired of nurturing change you have ceased being a leader. The alternative is not only a drop in productivity but  a loss of competitive survival as well.