How to kickstart your organizational change

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This article by Michael Pollock was first published on Forbes.com

You know your organization has to change to keep its edge. Whether it’s swifter product innovation, welding together silos, or restructuring to take advantage of new technology and changing distribution models, your bottom line tells you that you need to see movement sooner rather than later.

But bringing about the change in an organic, it’ll-all-work-out-fine-in-the-end way doesn’t seem to be working. Some of your leadership team members are by nature conservative and protective of their power bases. All are reluctant to do anything that will jeopardize their salary and bonus checks.

So in my experience, now’s the time to put change at the top of everyone’s agenda and focus the whole leadership team — laserlike — on that one achievement. Put them in a room with an objective facilitator and task them with getting done what needs to be done — together and now.

The challenge is, above all, a creative business design task. It requires teams to get excited for the possibilities, to have a deep focus on understanding the desired outcome, and to have the ability to work together toward a common goal. To get to this place, the team members will likely need to increase their mutual respect for each other’s strengths and learn to speak openly with one another. This part is very very important and not always easy. I have had to call some people on their nonsense to get them off the dime.

Will they be able to play nicely together? Are they smart enough to be able to make the necessary pivots? This could be the perfect time to introduce some new blood to change up the dynamics. I was speaking recently with a creative communications company about such a change program. There were five people on the leadership team, and to refresh the lineup they had added a sixth. “Let me guess,” I said. “There were five men and you added a woman.”

“Yes, that’s right. How on earth did you know that?”

It’s a start, I thought to myself. Though just one in six? Really? Adding a new personality and fresh perspective to disturb the balance of the team may be the most important step you’ll take to get the process of effective change under way.

So now what? The initial critical step will be for the team to craft and agree on a simple powerful expression of the new vision. This vision will be their most important deliverable, though their hard work will continue as they will have to create many more deliverables throughout the coming days.

I recommend that these important foundational steps to create the new vision and its guiding principles be taken in an offsite intensive where the team is protected from quotidian distractions and distanced from the familiar sights and sounds. No fooling around, just a positive focus on the future — “positive” being the most important word there. This has to be a constructive move forward, not a remedial look backward.

This intensive session should begin with frank, establishing discussions. As a facilitator, I’ve asked: “Why are we here and what strengths do we each bring to the table? What is change and why are we doing it? What is our goal for this group and this meeting?”

Now I have them take a positive look back at what has worked and what features have made the company strong and them proud. Some of the answers will lead to agreement on basic legacy attitudes or structures that might be preserved. This is about what has worked well, not what has failed. I have found that some sharp lines have to be drawn to prevent the discussion from getting entangled in the gripes of the past.

A general overview article such as this can’t come to grips with the specifics of your particular situation — but here are a few suggestions to provoke your thinking:

  • Why is your firm in business?
  • What is your client or customer thinking when they consider buying your product or working with your firm? Role play this.
  • Who is your ideal client? What would you do for them? Why might they pick you?
  • Start from scratch in redesigning your operational flow or supply chain. How would you want it to be designed if this was Day 1?
  • How will quality control be affected? Cash flow? Revenue?
  • Should team structure be rethought? How will these changes affect talent retention and recruitment?
  • How will departments and their teams react when they learn of the changes?

The leadership group should hold every choice they make up to the vision statement that they have created to ensure that all the pieces will be pulling together and make holistic sense to everyone at every touchpoint.

Once all this is in place, the team should invite a larger group of staff to contribute their own ideas as to what in the plan needs fine-tuning. Find ways for them also to become owners of the change. Ask them for input on how most effectively to implement the changes in their groups and have them identify team members who will be excited by the new thinking so they can be enlisted in helping bring along resisters. Let everyone agree on their own specific responsibilities and create a next steps action plan for all — and set regular check-in times for evaluating progress.

This larger group should be committed to ensuring that all this brilliant new thinking does not end up gathering dust on a shelf. They should design a framework for continuing the change momentum that’s beginning now, defining success metrics and accountability as well as incentives to ward against future complacency and fatigue. Re-evaluation and change will become the norm, not a once in a lifetime event.

Should this be the start of an incessant revolution? Now there’s a conversation starter!

Executive Coach and Consultant for Creative and Media Professionals and owner of Pollock Spark.