Car crash management – three guaranteed ways to screw up change

Jun 17, 2021

You cannot manage change with certainty. Outcomes can be divergent and unpredictable. Things rarely run as you intended, and you can never really predict what the result will be when you start.

I love playing a game with my executive clients. We work through the perfect way to screw up. It’s counterintuitive – most teams invest in planning how to succeed and nowhere near enough in planning how to fail. Commendable and based on positive intent but naïve to threats.
Corporate teams especially believe in a magic formula - add a little PowerPoint, bring in some leadership buzzwords, and a process and ta-dah change done. Sadly the only recipe I’ve seen work is the more (senior) people involved, the less likely change is to stick.
So, humour me. What are the three ways you can make change fail?
1. Consult when you mean command
Staff engagement is a huge marker for success in any industry, and leaders do like to feel respected and build rapport with their teams.
By shifting into consultation when a non-negotiable change is happening, they shy away from the politics of dictating the change and unravel a whole longer cycle of politics by inviting discussion when there isn’t discussion. If you know the only colour paint you have in the cupboard is grey, don’t ask people for a choice, it’s the quickest way to alienate them and to lose your credibility as a leader.
2. Swear people to secrecy
I’ve asked this of groups so many times to manage messaging. If you get a big enough room, you can tell everyone at once, but the more people you have in a room, the greater anxiety you build. It never works. You have to prepare for the message to get shared quicker than expected. Sometimes it’s a shock thing – when people genuinely want to process how they’re feeling with their co-workers, sometimes it’s simply a power game. Prepare for that. Clear communication, ideally written to support the in-person, helps. Clarity about time frames for transmission is critical. Asking people to respect others helps. Never assume that a secret will stay a secret. Even if people don’t see each other daily, social media can’t light the fuse far quicker than you can respond. Prepare for that eventuality.
3. Assume people are cogs
It feels safest to assume that if you do x, then y will happen. As a leader, you want to offer security; you want to succeed; even better, you want your team to succeed. Life feels a bit more balanced with a timeline and some boxes to tick. There’s a danger in seeing a group like an engine – it isn’t. Even if it were, engines go wrong. Look at formula one with the testing, millions in investment, best engineers in the world, but sometimes the engine fails. Start from the position that change = uncertainty. A team is a group of people led by people and serves other people. Embrace that complexity, don’t try to control it. That mentality can accept that sometimes events don’t go as planned, curiosity to observe how people react, and flexibility to respond.
Admit it, even though this was a game, I’ll bet that you’ve seen some of those behaviours play out in the real world!

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