Leading change -take me to your leader

I once had a very plain-speaking Australian operations manager call me into his office. 

He had overheard a conversation I had with the CEO about killing the Intranet and moving to a new, more collaborative enterprise social system. After the initial mocking about my accent, weird shoes, the number of empty coffee cups on my desk and a quick update on the performance of his racehorse, he got to the point. 

“I think you should know that…you know…he’s a manager, not a leader. He won’t make that decision. The real boss is in Singapore so either go and knock on his door or just get IT to put your new system in and cross your fingers they’ll do what you say and not ask too many questions.”

He was right. 

I’ve just been re-reading John P Kotter’s seminal article Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail:

“A paralyzed senior management often comes from having too many managers and not enough leaders. Management’s mandate is to minimize risk and to keep the current system operating. Change, by definition, requires creating a new system, which in turn always demands leadership. Phase one in a renewal process typically goes nowhere until enough real leaders are promoted or hired into senior-level jobs.”

If you read the full article you’ll see there are many other factors to consider (pretty sure I’ve ticked the fail box on all seven at some stage) but the manager’s response is always to protect the current system. I think it’s an important thing to think about because it might enable you to change tack and start throwing down some quick-wins like I got with the new system that went live by the end of the day. I would have wasted so much time writing reports and re-scoping and testing all sorts of other options that the CEO would never have said yes to.

Like you, I’m sure you can think of many times when you’ve tried to get people to make decisions and wondered why nothing was happening. You get responses like ‘write a report’, ‘show me some KPIs’, ‘who else is doing this- I need to see a working system’, ‘we’ll move towards it over the next 18 months’, ‘there is another project that covers this’, ‘we already looked at doing this last year’. 

You might be better to return to your coffee cup island wasteland in your weird shoes and come up with a new path over the mountain. 

 

The hardest change management I've ever done

I swore (literally volcano of expletives) a number of years ago that I would never do house renovations ever again. Last week, I broke my vows in a sweary deluge of ‘I AM PAINTING IT OR I AM SETTING FIRE TO IT’

I literally barricaded myself in the toilet with a wall sander and some paint I found in the shed and started painting. I did the toilet, the bathroom, the kitchen, living room- I just kept going and hoped like hell that it was going to look OK. True disruption is an unglamorous business. 

So what changed?

My parents are getting older. I’m getting older. 

What to me was a simple decision ‘paint the house yourself or pay someone else to paint it’ for them was 57 Doha Rounds of discussions about the future and retirement and where they want to live and get buried and life and the universe. Big time feelings. 

It was an admission that they are getting older and can’t do the things they used to do. It forced them to break their routine and romantic ideas of former house builds and renovation projects. It forced them to accept that all of that stuff was probably behind them and the tough decisions they had to make for their parents, I was now making for them. It was also going to make a huge mess. 

I needed to crowbar them into the future by putting the feelings aside and acting on the reality that:

-the house needed painting

-hiring a contractor to do it was overwhelming for them and not going to happen

-they had no vision for the next five or ten years; only what had been, so small decisions about redecorating seemed huge

-they had not been part of the renovation I’d done on my own place so they didn’t trust me to take the lead and make decisions about what needed to happen

-I had to break the inertia, even if it required threats of arson

Proper painters will tell you 'it’s all in the prep' and I did none. After the first coat locked in the toilet it looked terrible and I had done more damage and broken the toilet seat by standing on it to paint the ceiling. The random acrylic paint from the shed wasn’t covering. My parent's greatest fear -“Courtney will just paint everything white”- had come true and in a very ugly way. Never mind, that could be the undercoat. 

I went to the paint shop desperate for a better idea and was given a magical enamel paint called ‘Creamy Vanilla’ (thank you Wattyl) that was pretty expensive but the opportunity to bomb the whole house with it appealed greatly at that point in time. Plus, it’s not white, it’s vanilla.

I did another lap of the interior and went to bed hoping for a miracle but also defiant that the house wasn’t going to paint itself so worst case, I got the ball rolling and it was more undercoat. 

After the second coat, I finally unlocked the doors and let my parents look at whatever I had terrorised their house with. It looked amazing. The magical gloss enamel paint had rejuvenated the whole house overnight and covered my cyclone of bodgy brush work. Other than the obviously broken toilet seat, they just sort of stood there and gaped at it for a while. By lunchtime, all had been forgotten and they were phoning carpet layers and appliance places. Seven years of talking about what to do next was over and although there was some initial sulking (it’s not white, it’s VANILLA) the relief at breaking the inertia was much greater than any massive mess I had made. 

It was the hardest piece of change management I’ve ever done not because of the task, but because of the feelings. Much like Milton (pictured- Office Space 1999) actions speak louder than words and sometimes, you have to just lock yourself in the toilet and paint your way out.