I’m not a volleyball player, but I did have one memorable experience playing the game in a gym class back in high school. The other team hit the ball high. As it lofted over the net, each one of us tracked its trajectory, tensed for action. We could see where it was headed. We knew what needed to be done. What we couldn’t quite grasp was who would be the right person to do it. Time slowed as we each asked ourselves, “Who’s going to get it? Should I? Who’s going to get it …” until eventually we ended up all just standing there and watching it drop.
At the start of an organization transformation there is usually a sense of anticipation, similar to that at the start of an athletic event. Excitement is high, and participants are eager to put change into action. The initial stages of diagnosis and problem solving may go smoothly enough. However, all too often that dynamic sense of readiness can degenerate into paralysis. Like players who let the ball drop, an organization change team can find themselves looking at each other wondering why they can’t move forward and get things done.
This syndrome can even become endemic in an organization when one intervention is attempted and fails, another one is brought in, and then another, until each subsequent intervention is met with a growing sense of cynicism—which presents yet another notch in a string of organization transformation false starts.
Maintaining Momentum While Managing Organizational Change
How can an organization keep the ball rolling over the critical transition between the diagnosis/problem solving stage and sustained implementation of solutions?
First, it’s important to recognize that most of the time, this dynamic of paralysis is not a conscious thing. More than anything it happens because the change environment itself tends to put people out of their comfort zones. When we find ourselves out of our comfort zone, we rely even more than usual on strong leadership. The role of leadership in change management is thus even more critical than it is in normal day-to-day situations.
Here are five common ways I’ve observed leaders dropping the ball in the process of organizational change, along with suggestions for improved performance:
- Failing to assign clear ownership. People who are unsure of their responsibilities tend not to act, for fear of overstepping their bounds or because they simply don’t know what to do or feel empowered. Making sure everyone knows what their duties are and are prepared to take ownership of them can go a long way towards initiating action and maintaining change momentum.
- Failure to adequately think through resourcing. Planning and problem solving is a very cerebral activity, which sometimes results in mental leaps that overlook practicalities. Before implementation can take place, it’s important to “fill in the gaps” by ensuring that people are not only assigned to critical activities and responsibilities but also have the resources they need to move forward. One communications team leader I worked with got stalled in her responsibilities to develop the organization transformation communications plan because her team members were all too busy with their day-to-day responsibilities. She could never find time that they could meet, accept assignments, and provide the needed input. In the end, she did her best, but the communications were haphazard at best and she took a career hit because her peers assumed she couldn’t deliver.
- Inconsistent follow-up. Teams that drop the ball are often those that don’t put a cadence or rhythm in place to follow up and ensure that what they said they want to do is actually happening. In this area as well as for resourcing, a dedicated project manager can help ensure that everything moves forward as planned. That project manager should then institute a regular set of meetings to report status, monitor issues, and engage leaders in making decisions. When the organization transformation is not part of the daily, weekly and monthly rhythm of running the business, it will rarely command the attention of busy organization members unless it is made a priority.
- Unsustained leadership. Often these situations emerge when leaders walk out of meetings intent on moving on to the next thing, and fail to sustain emphasis or accountability on the things they’ve decided or committed to in the meeting. Leaders need to understand that transformational change is a process that takes place over time and requires their presence and leadership throughout. One successful leader I worked with said, “The three keys of lasting organization transformation are 1. Follow-up, 2. Follow-up, and 3. Follow-up.”
- Weak change partners and/or leaders. Strong leadership is critical to implementing organizational change. When the leader him- or herself becomes busy, distracted or uncertain what to do, it sets the tone for the whole team. Sometimes all it takes to keep a leader on track is a good change partner who can keep him or her accountable. A change partner who passively waits for the leader to get things done or is afraid to exert their influence does the leader—and the whole organization—a disservice. A big part of knowing how to implement organizational change is for both leaders and their change partners to understand the actionable steps needed to make progress during a change transformation.
Simply being aware of these five problem areas and being proactive about addressing them can go a long way toward ensuring that an organization change transitions successfully from planning to actual implementation.