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Managing “Why, What, How?” During Rapid Change

on June 15, 2020

Over the past few months I’ve had the pleasure of speaking with a number of chief human resource officers and talent leaders. After these conversations, I am invigorated and optimistic about the future because of the commitment I hear from these leaders to provide an environment where their colleagues can grow, thrive, and have an impact.

Right now, however, things are moving so fast. News about opening up the economy, what the future of work will look like, and how to prepare for that future is changing constantly. The onslaught of information can be overwhelming. What do you pay attention to? What changes should you try? Right now, you have to act with agility, but new action feels riskier than ever.

In my career I’ve had the good fortune of being involved in some very large change projects, both as a leader and as a partner to the organizations undergoing change. During these experiences, it has been very clear that being nimble and changing your what and how as a plan is rolled out can lead to the greatest success.

Why, What, How

Why are we changing? What do we have to do differently as a result of this change? How do we do what we have to do?

This is pretty straightforward thinking around change, and these are questions leaders are used to working through before executing strategic change. The challenge can be in waiting to have clarity on all three before acting. And that is the predicament we are in currently. If you need to move faster, you’ll want to get to 100% clarity on the why but be satisfied with 60–70% clarity on the what and the how.

It might feel wrong to start executing change without having the what and how nailed down. After all, a plan needs to be solidified before it begins, right? In an ideal scenario, yes. But rarely are the conditions ideal, and we certainly aren’t facing such times right now. Therefore, now is a time to embrace experimentation because as soon as you execute on the what and how, you are going to find out where the errors in your thinking are and what you need to adjust.

In my experience, when leaders wait to have 100% clarity on all three of these things, they often become so invested in their approach that they stay the course on the what and how even when experience tells them something is not working.

So, when you need to make change quickly, follow this approach:

  • 100% clarity on why
  • 60% clarity on what and how
  • Iterate the remaining 40% once you start to collect data on what’s working and what’s not

This approach allows for speed and also allows you to incorporate feedback from across the organization, and in particular the front line.

Avoid the “Pilot Push”

I’ve learned this lesson the hard way. In a prior role, I was leading a team through significant changes in our sales process. All the decision-making about this new process was centralized within a group of senior leaders. We were given the “This is the only way to do this, and if you do it this way, you’ll be successful” speech.

It quickly became evident that some elements of this “only way” did not work as expected. In fact, one person on my team was having great success by doing things fundamentally differently from the “only way.”

After sharing this feedback, it was dismissed, and I was directed to get this person to change anyway. However, as successful people leaders know, when change becomes an exercise in compliance, trust and engagement erode with the very people you are depending on for the success of your change.

There’s an interesting phenomenon called “pilot push.” This is where pilots become so focused on reaching their destination that they will push through all information that might suggest they may not be able to make that destination safely. Don’t suffer from “pilot push” when it comes to change.

Uncertainty Can Lead to Success

During times when rapid change is the only means to organizational survival, you must be content with getting 100% clarity on the why and honing the details of the what and how as you gather evidence that your plan is indeed leading you down the path you need to go. Leaders don’t need all the answers. Let your purpose, your why, guide you and your people through the changes needed in the moment to achieve long-term success in the end.

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