All leaders know this feeling: You’re progressing in your business, and life’s going along swimmingly. Then suddenly, bam! Someone hits the brakes, and you’re sitting useless in the middle of the street, your competitors zipping past.
You’re staring at the engine and kicking the tires. You can’t figure out what’s broken, but you’re upset with yourself because you knew something was wrong and you let it fester until—what do you know?—you got stuck.
Breathe deeply because I have a one-word fix for your problem: change.
I should caution that one-word fixes can be complicated—especially that particular word. Change is scary. Change is hard. It requires us to toss aside the familiar and jump headlong into the unknown. And change can be rife with failure as we experiment with new ideas until we hit the right mix to jump-start our engines.
But change doesn’t have to be so daunting. The problem is, our expectations of a quick and easy fix derail us. We think there ought to be some sort of magic—if we try something new, it’ll automatically improve our situations. When it doesn’t, we often give up, hope the problem goes away or keep working harder at a solution that clearly isn’t working. So let’s reassess our expectations of change and learn how to ease an organization into it. I guarantee that, the next time you stall, you’ll get moving a whole lot faster.
1. Is your change worthwhile and possible?
Before doing anything, ask yourself two questions: Is this change worth making? Every change you make requires you to pay a price. Try to estimate if the potential return is worth the time, money, good will, energy and relationship costs required to achieve it. And:
Can we do it? A change may be desirable and worthy, but it must also be something that is actually possible. Think about whether your team has the capacity, resolve, time, talent and ability to pull it off. Remember, it’s your responsibility to count the cost and gauge the capacity for every change you desire to make before moving forward.
2. Get your leadership team to buy in.
When we get stuck, we often shift into crisis mode. Quick! Come up with a solution, pull the trigger and hope for the best. What’s wrong with that? Smart leaders think on their feet, right?
Well, yes and no. Swift adaptation is important, but sometimes slowing down is more important. Change won’t be positive unless your leadership team believes in the new vision.
I learned this lesson the hard way years ago when I tried to shortcut the change process. I had led my organization for a long time and had a lot of “chips” with the people. Because of that, I thought I could make a major change without meeting with my top leaders, acquainting them with the problem and getting them all on the same page. What a mistake!
The change I was trying to introduce ground to a halt. I ended up having to apologize for the way I did things. And those “chips” I held? I spent a lot of them. I learned my lesson. If you need to make changes, go through the right process. Shortcuts never lead to anyplace worth going.
3. Make improvement, not perfection, the goal.
We put enormous effort into making business changes. We take risks. We spend time and money implementing something new.
And because of that, we want those changes to pay off—in big ways, not small. Having high expectations isn’t necessarily a bad thing—unless they are totally unrealistic.
We get into trouble when we think our initiatives will yield perfect solutions. I don’t want to burst your bubble, but guess what: They won’t. So take perfection off the table because you’ll drive yourself and your team mad if you insist on it. Instead, shoot for some level of improvement and measure your outcomes on progress, not perfection.
4. It should feel awkward.
Intellectually, we know that change means things will be different. Yet for some reason we expect it to be comfortable. Let’s get real. If change doesn’t feel a little weird, it’s not really change.
Anticipate the discomforts your team will feel and guide them through those difficulties. Paint the picture for them ahead of time—let them know what’s coming and what they might expect. Then remind them that stress, uncertainty and upheaval are normal—and temporary. Offering comfort and reassurance is a key part of your job.
5. Evolution is easier than revolution.
Get ready to make some judgment calls. How much are you planning to shake up your organization? Are you going to make an “evolutionary” change or a “revolutionary” one? Make sure you understand the difference because if you’re making the latter, you’d better prepare your people for significant upheaval.
An evolutionary change is a refinement to what has already been. You’re tweaking the way your organization runs, hoping to make incremental improvements. These kinds of changes typically aren’t highly disruptive.
Revolutionary changes are different. You’re turning the place upside down, shaking it up and putting the pieces back together in ways you hope will yield major progress. Sometimes this is exactly what you need—maybe that engine was beyond repair. But these changes can consume all your organization’s energy and bring it to a grinding halt if you aren’t careful. Know what you’re getting yourself into.
6. Change yourself first.
As a leader, you can’t be a change agent for your organization if you’re stagnant on the inside. You need to commit to your own personal growth if you are going to lead your company through changes and improvements. You need to set goals, fix aspects of your life that aren’t working and strengthen relationships. You’ve got to be reading, learning and studying, all in an effort to accelerate toward your vision of your future. Remember how we started this conversation: You don’t want to get stuck. The day you stop growing and changing is the day you start to lose credibility as a leader.
“In the end, it is important to remember that we cannot become what we need to be by remaining what we are,” author and business leader Max De Pree once said. That’s true of me and of you, your team and your organization.
If you want to keep getting better, you need to embrace change and become its champion.