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Leading Change

You may be familiar with John Kotter, the Konosuke Matsushita Professor of Leadership, Emeritus, at the Harvard Business School, and the founder of Kotter International, a management consulting firm based in Seattle and Boston. He is a thought leader in business, leadership, and change.

He is known for speaking passionately about the difference between “managing” change and “leading” change.

“Management makes a system work,” Kotter explains. “It helps you do what you know how to do. Leadership builds systems or transforms old ones.”

Kotter is also well known for his 8-step process for leading change. Here is a graphic depiction:

“In a change process of any kind you must win over the hearts of people and the minds of people,” Kotter is famous for saying. “The most effective change efforts are able to get people to not only think differently, but also feel differently about the initiative.”

“Selling” the Concept of Change

change is good, but never “easy!”

The point has been made, in prior posts, that “change” is not always perceived as being good, and instead tends to promote fear, uncertainty, doubt; and even resentment!

Consider that, in organizations of all types people tend to look with skepticism at new policies and procedures, and look with deep concern at new compensation plans or updated benefits programs. Similarly, in their daily quest for new customers, sales people constantly struggle to overcome buyers’ comfort with the status-quo; and people at all levels regularly cringe at the suggestion that there might be a different or better way to do their jobs!

Yet without change comes stagnation… and potentially worse things too. Current-day examples include Polaroid in instant photography, Blockbuster in video, Xerox in copiers, or the Yellow Pages! Each of these household name enterprises experienced significant declines, or worse, as competitors introduced new and better alternatives.

The cassette tape replaced the eight-track, but was then outdone by the compact disc, which was undercut by MP3 players… and the list can go on.

A Selling Mission…
If we’re to learn from these examples, then we must accept the fact that change — either in the form of innovation, continuous improvement or both — is a critical component of growth and ongoing success. Without innovation and change we run the risk of losing our competitive position or potential obsolescence.

“Whatever made you successful in the past won’t in the future,” said the late Hewlett Packard CEO Lew Platt.

But if people tend to resist change as previously noted, how might managers or business owners best go about getting the team to accept it — to buy in? How can we help people more readily embrace improvement programs, try new protocols, accept new pricing models or generally believe in the up-side of change?

Simply stated, we must sell it.

Just like the sales and marketing experts who create the “new and improved” ad copy, slogans and selling presentations, we must sell the concept of change to our staff members before trying to present or roll-out new policies, procedures, campaigns, programs or plans.

And just like any sales mission, this will require forethought and planning.

We might start by identifying how the team will benefit from a proposed change. What’s in it for them? What are the consequences of not changing? What will it cost? What opportunities might we lose?

What’s the competition doing?

The next step is to determine how to properly position a proposed change. Since we know there is a tendency toward defensiveness, it’s important to make people understand that they are not the problem. In other words, a change in policy or approach need not mean that the team has been doing things the wrong way. Rather, it means the world is changing and we must change too, lest we fall behind.

Finally, once the presentation is made and the new whatever is launched, there must be follow-up reinforcement and assessment. Has everything worked as we’d hoped? Should we modify the new plan? Are there unforeseen consequences? While we don’t want to send a message indicating we’re not resolved to the new program or approach, it is also a good idea to let everyone know we’re fair and open-minded — that at the end of the day we’re all on the same side.

Change may be unsettling, but without it our futures are at risk; and there are clearly ways to minimize the negative effects. It will require effort, planning and, like any selling mission, persistence, as behaviors and attitudes are not easily influenced.

Margaret Thatcher may have summed it up best when saying, “You may have to fight a battle more than once to win it!”

Learning from the Marketplace to Promote Internal Change

As noted in our previous post, “knowledge” is one of the most powerful change agents, and all sorts of learning can become a catalyst for change.

One very effective source of knowledge is our marketplace, which includes our customers and competitors.

By learning from the market we can often see possibilities for innovation that have been overlooked. Of course learning is only the first step, as the gained knowledge must then be applied.

For example, in the early 1980’s, Toyota believed that to grow their sales in the United States they would need to have manufacturing facilities here, but they concluded they did not have enough knowledge to do so successfully. So they entered into a joint venture with General Motors, opening the NUMMI plant in California to produce both the Chevy Nova and the Toyota Corolla in the United States.

After they achieved their learning goals, Toyota went on to successfully open plants in a number of U.S. locations, applying their knowledge each time.  While General Motors had the opportunity to learn the production systems that enabled Toyota to produce very high quality products at low cost, and while many individuals at GM learned a great deal through this venture, GM gained little more from the venture than the cars that came off the assembly line.

Learning from the customer can also open our eyes to new possibilities. But it’s important to recognize that customers may tell you what they want, but not necessarily why.

So making the extra effort to go beyond just “what they need” to gain knowledge is critically-important. Contextual inquiry is a method of learning more about the customer needs than the customer could tell you by watching the customer use the product in context.

What do they really value? How do they use or struggle to use what you give them? What are the things that you could do differently that the customers would not know to ask? And consider that they don’t ask because they don’t know enough about your process
to suggest it, and you don’t know enough about their process to offer it!

Similarly, knowledge of the competition can produce a greater sense of urgency or a heightened “willingness” to change, and in many cases can give us better insights as to the best ways to satisfy our customers and achieve a competitive edge.

Are the Same Old Problems Impacting Your Innovation Level?

innovationIn a recent post we shared some thoughts on the relationship between quality and innovation.

Everyone wants to be innovative — the best returns and greater profits come to those who who can create a management system or culture that constantly is clicking on all cylinders, or those who can be the first to introduce “new or improved” products to the market.

Innovations such as these create powerful competitive advantages.

But how often do they happen?

Innovation is challenging for both large and small organizations. In our experience and research, we find that innovation is truly enigmatic:

  • Large organizations have more wherewithal to invest in systematic innovation, but smaller organizations seem more capable of capitalizing on innovative ideas. Why?
  • Most innovations come not from visionaries at the top but from people closest to the work. Yet paradoxically, strong leadership and vision at the top of the organization are required to create an environment that fosters innovation and risk taking. Without strong leadership, organizations become bureaucratic and risk-averse.
  • Outsiders often have the most innovative ideas, but insiders’ know-how and buy-in are required to get them implemented.

Our next few posts will discuss some of the barriers to innovation and some ways to overcome these barriers.

Be a “LEADER” to Facilitate Change

fudSeveral past posts have referenced the fact that Continuous Improvement requires change, which can be difficult for many people. Consider that most of us react to change with a combination of fear,
uncertainty and doubt – the “FUD” factor!

Many of us also experience emotions similar to those associated with grief, which include denial, anger, and depression.  To help people balance these normal emotional reactions and to avoid the frequently-associated drops in performance and morale, leaders can provide more objective and logical alternatives.

Here’s a simple mnemonic that outlines some best practices for leading change:


Logical alternatives to fear or speculation can help the team focus on the right things, such as their goals and daily tasks. Help people deal with rumors and emotional reactions to change by providing the right perspective; otherwise they might make-up their own version of reality. Create short-term goals (and wins!) for added focus.

Exemplify the right attitude and behavior. Avoid gossip and put random speculation in perspective. Leading by example is a standard best practice, especially during transitional times.  Demonstrate a composed and logical reaction to change. As we all know but often forget, change is necessary for long-term success.

Acknowledgement is the first step toward acceptance.  Encourage people by explaining that change may be hard to understand at first, but it is a necessary part of long-term success; help them acknowledge that the marketplace demands change, and discuss the desirable outcomes of innovation – one of our core values!

Direct people on what needs to be done. Help them to maintain normal levels of productivity, safety, quality and morale, and to continue business-as-usual; to continue meeting the requirements of our standard policies, procedures and work processes, and living-up to team, company and customer expectations.

Education and frequent communication are musts during transitional times; provide knowledge or coaching with respect to reality – i.e., why change is necessary; that it is not punitive or personal, and that it is not acceptable to slack-off during the transition – note that people who do so often regret it afterward.

Reinforcement is a necessary ingredient to acceptance, and people will require regular doses of it; remind them of past changes that have turned-out to be good after all, despite initial fears or concerns; reinforce the logical alternatives to fear or speculation (above), as well as the value of change in general.

Leading Improvement Teams & Change With Creativity!

boxWhen identifying the traits of a good CI Leader, we have often referenced the importance of getting people to WANT to do what needs to be done.  Leadership provides the energy for change and the commitment to sustain it.

Although not often associated with leadership, creativity is a trait that modern leaders should also harness, says a recent article published on leadchangegroup.com.

Suggesting that creativity is the driving force behind innovation and change, the article goes on to state that it is a good leader’s job to encourage creative or outside-of-the-box thinking, and construct a team that works well by bringing in workers with varying aspects that complement each other.

“This way, a team of different thinkers can brainstorm together and come to the best solution that is both practical and innovative,” says author Ron Burg, a Leadership Development Specialist.

Burg also lists the following five “creativity killers” that leaders should avoid:

  1. Not listening
  2. Shooting down ideas
  3. Playing it too safe
  4. Limiting group diversity
  5. Micromanaging

Peter Principle in Continuous Improvement?

culture2Continuous improvement is a long journey during which organizations can reach new levels of success, and during which everyone involved can potentially learn a great deal.

But like any human endeavor or change initiative, staying the course can be difficult, and the path to developing a culture of continuous improvement is fraught with many opportunities for delays or wrong turns.

Among these twists and turns there is one particular pitfall about which we must be most concerned – because no matter which approach we take in our efforts to gain greater efficiency, quality, speed or customer satisfaction, the oh-too-frequent reality is that once a few initial improvements are made, the effort peters out.

The Solution
Proactive and focused leadership is often the key to avoiding this hazard – which is often called “discontinuous improvement!”

If top management stays involved by showing interest, reinforcing commitment, removing obstacles, and publicly recognizing (and communicating about) achievement, then the practice of making improvements can continue forever.

Leadership & Change

changeContinuing on the theme of “managing change,” it is important to recognize that change does not “just happen.” Instead it takes place when leaders at all levels see opportunities and get others to share their passion about what can be accomplished.

Strong leaders provide the initial and ongoing energy for change. Without strong leadership, most change efforts will fail. Making speeches or presentations, declaring a new mission or vision and handing out short-term rewards alone will not cut it; management must advocate, lead and support change.

People will only follow leaders if they trust them, if they see the need for change, if they believe change will benefit “all” parties, and if they are involved in creating the change.

In addition to strong leadership, sustained change is brought about by a combination of human relations systems, beliefs, values and cultural practices. They are the true catalysts to sustained change and improvement.

Thinking that people will make profound changes in their thinking and behavior after just a one-time training class or multi-day workshop is not realistic.

Leaders must get personally involved in sponsoring, leading and implementing change.


Dealing With & Managing Change: Part 2

changeWe all know that effective leadership and continuous improvement involve driving change. Continuing this theme from our previous post, here are a few additional thoughts on how to manage change within your workplace:

  • Successful change cannot be mandated or forced
  • Help people recognize that we must change not to fight the current way, but for a better way
  • Successful change starts from within; we must help others to trust that the change will benefit the company and will benefit the workforce over the long-term
  • An honest behavioral self-analysis is a good start, but not always easy to accomplish; help people assess their own behavior with respect to change and to evaluate whether or not it is leading them toward their desired career path
  • Some people will appear that they’re buying in, but behave otherwise…
  • Help people recognize that it’s easier to change when you can, rather than when you have to

Leading Change

Since improvement initiatives always involve making changes to the status-quo, we have shared a number of posts that focus on different aspects of change, including a simple chart of the steps for leading change.

changeAnother consideration for leading or managing change or improvement projects might also include a heightened awareness of the steps people often must take in order to accept changes to processes, policies or day-to-day activities in the workplace.

As the image shows, these steps are similar to those associated with handling grief.  If we are aware of these steps it is likely that we can more rapidly recognize when others (or ourselves!) are struggling with new ideas, protocols or requirements, and also how to help those who are challenged to more quickly resolve their concerns.