The Leaders Notebook

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Beyond New Year’s Resolutions

January 3rd, 2011 · No Comments · Follow the Leaders, Great Questions, Playing a Bigger Game

It is that time of year again- New Years means New Year’s resolutions.  Recently my web feeds have been full of cynical articles about why we are so poor at keeping resolutions.  The stories of gyms that are crowded from Jan 1 until about mid February are legion this time of year- and sadly accurate.  But I got to talk to a few people I know who kept their resolutions last year.

Here is the single critical thing I learned from them.  After the promise is made, the easy part is putting a plan together.  The hard part is understanding and embracing the resistance and fear that go with following the plan.  In the absence of some understanding of the emotional desires to NOT change anything, we are stuck with willpower.  Willpower is a great thing, but lets face it.  The “David” of commitment to a significant change in behavior (and usually a relatively new born David to boot) has little chance of winning the battle with a decades-old “Goliath” of emotions that is perfectly happy to have things remain as they are.  Without some knowledge of what makes Goliath tick, our resolutions are out-gunned from the beginning.

Oddly enough, the same is true of major organizational change.  Every year I see client companies stack up a queue of projects to fund for the coming year.  As they decide on the changes they think will most improve the organization’s performance, it is easy to make the plans (if not cheap).  Project teams go to work on plans and budgets and eventually publish a brave vision for the new future.  But most of those projects still end up on the productivity scrap heap.  The published research still seems to tell us that somewhere around 75- 80% of new initiatives fail.

In his book How the Mighty Fall, Jim Collins shows us that the seeds of organizational decline are easily found during the boom times that made such failure seem impossible.  So it is with project failures.  Most companies have a process for planning changes that includes fairly rigorous budgeting; however, what is generally missing is a plan for working with the amount of organizational resistance the change will evoke.  Just because the EVP wants more control on margins does not mean that the sales organization wants to change the way they do pricing.

As any leader knows, compliance by order went out with the Roman legions, assuming it worked even then.  Organizational change leaders would do well, especially BEFORE they launch a project, to fully understand the amount of resistance the proposed change will evoke and begin at the very earliest stages to create a dialog.  Most planning models insert “communications and training” as tactical part of roll out- which is coincidentally where both big change projects and where New Year’s Resolutions die.  And usually by that time, most of the money in the plan is spent- whether it is on the new gym membership or on software licenses for the very people who kill, or at least mortally wound, the initiative.

So- what does that dialog look like?  How do we engage with Goliath?  Execution differs for the New Year’s Resolution and the major change project, but the underlying structure is the same.  It means engaging with those who are not at all interested in the new way of doing things.  The most adaptable model for this I have seen is from Robert Kegan’s recent book- Immunity to Change.  In fact I attended a session at last year’s ICF conference where he walked us thought the fundamental framework tool.

In it’s shortest form, Kegan invites us to explore actively why the change will be hard and what worries us about being successful- or more accurately, about what it will take to be successful.  As with any conversation, if we can enter this dialog without judgment and strive to understand, then the likelihood of a sustainable solution is much higher.

For a fuller understanding of the model, I suggest making a New Year’s resolution to read Kegan’s Immunity to Change.  And while you are reading, think about the conversations with the parts of your organization you expect to change in the coming year.

Happy New Year!

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