Organizational transformations can be messy, but I’ve seen some massive transformations executed flawlessly. They had this in common: they began by addressing employee well-being (hearts) over the logic of getting from point A to point B. In every case, leaders and existing employees weather the process of forming, storming, norming and performing. The process is normal, and should be expected among all newly forming teams, or those undergoing large change efforts. While people generally dislike conflict, it's healthy. If there is no conflict, you have a problem. Have you ever been. in a meeting where a leader is speaking, all heads in the room are nodding in agreement, but no one really means it? When everyone initially agrees, you have the worst type of problem: Disengaged compliance.
“The ironic thing about avoiding conflict is that it always leads to more conflict anyway” - Ruffolo, 2015
Employees and leaders change job roles frequently. This makes transformations and change management even more daunting as leaders are still building trust among new teams. Lewin’s concept of unfreezing existing behaviors, changing those behaviors and re-freezing new behaviors is part of change management theory, but it's much easier to pontificate on, than put it into action.
“Unfreezing is the first of Lewin's change transition stages, where people are taken from a state of being unready to change to being ready and willing to make the first step.” ChangingMinds.org
I believe that before unfreezing occurs, you have to change hearts, and then minds. Only then can we change strategy and find new ways to block and tackle.
Three recommendations for managing successful transformations:
Assuming positive intent:
This goes both ways. Employees should have empathy for incoming leaders. Remember being new and feeling your way around in the dark? Do you remember how hard it was to earn trust and balance demands from above and below? Likewise, leaders should assume employees have valid reasons for resisting change, if they do.
They’ve likely been through past failed change efforts, recent turbulence and a rainbow of bitterness in past flavors of the month. I knew an employee who didn’t feel validated. She slammed her hand on the desk and shouted, “Assume positive intent!” It probably wasn’t the best delivery. Maybe she was seen as a recalcitrant resister. It’s also possible she cared very much about a company to which she’d devoted 20 years of her life. Most employees just want the best for the company and their own well-being. Once validated and heard, they can be your biggest supporters. Yes, sometimes you have to express “the feels”. Nonetheless, assuming positive intent can go a long way for all parties involved.
Minding the lessons of history:
We shouldn’t get mired down in history, but we shouldn’t dismiss the lessons learned from the past, either. (You know...the baby, the bath water, yada yada). Incoming leaders should consider that rational actors made previous decisions based on the information they had at the time. Maybe they weren’t wrong. Chances are, the person who assumed our old job thinks we were wrong about a few things.
“Amnesty should be immediately be granted for the past.” - Lencioni
Respect for those who came before us:
Back to changing hearts, then minds: Unless we tip our hats to the once revered leaders of the past, we can’t heal. An employee told me he had hard feelings about a prior mentor/leader being let go. He wasn’t privy to the reason(s) but the employee was dissonant, nonetheless. Until this is partially addressed, it’s hard to embrace a new epic and vision.
Assuming positive intent, listening to the past to keep what works (leaving what doesn’t) and acknowledging the good within the leaders who came before, can go a long way to transforming the business. This is how you change hearts and minds, in that order, so people are more open to a new vision and way of doing things. This clears the path for the unfreezing, and change management. These three keys serve as the architectural runway for managing transformations with agility.