Setting Up For Success (or failure)

Remember when, a few short months ago, everyone was too busy taking orders and building up all of that inventory that you see out of your window now? Times have changed.

Then again, very few can claim lack of a “burning platform” now. Platform? Today it is more about getting out of the building alive!

Still, a few organizations are trying to drive change into the way they operate, and many more will fail than succeed.

The reasons why this is true were articulated by John Kotter back in 1995 in his now classic article Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail.

The short list is:

  1. Establishing a sense of urgency.
  2. Forming a powerful guiding coalition.
  3. Creating a vision.
  4. Communicating the vision. (Over-communicating!)
  5. Empowering others to act on the vision.
  6. Planning for and creating short-term wins.
  7. Consolidating improvements and producing still more change.
  8. Institutionalizing new approaches.

The question, then, becomes “Are you deploying effective countermeasures against these known failure points?”

I would like to share an exercise I used (admittedly improvised as I went) with a company leadership team a few years ago. It ended up really hitting them between the eyes with the gap between their perception and the reality.

Prior to the day, I had them all read the article.

We spent some time discussing and understanding each of the eight points Kotter discusses.

Then I had each of the little sub-teams we had break out and score how effectively they felt they were dealing with each of these eight items. For example, how well did they rate themselves on “Communicating the vision?” It was a simple numeric rating, 1-5.

Each sub-team then debriefed the group, and found everyone was pretty close to consensus.

In the meantime, we had another group going through the same exercise. This group consisted of the direct reports of the top leadership team.

We compared the numbers. They were very different.

The leaders rated themselves as being pretty effective. Their direct reports were not so kind. We didn’t do it, but it would have been interesting to do the same thing another level down again.

The leaders gained a decent understanding of the huge gap that existed between what they thought they were doing vs. how it was being read by their staff. What the leaders thought was a clear, crisp “change” message was pretty mushy by the time it was filtered through words vs. actions.

Try it in your organization. Assess yourselves. Then do the same assessment with another group a couple of levels closer to reality. See what you get.

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