Learn to lead change from experts

Learn to lead change from experts

Oct 30, 2012

Change is difficult. Yeah, what else is new?

Well, change can be even more difficult in some situations. Take universities: the hierarchy is flat; the power is complete distributed. Take boards or C-level executives, same setup.

Leading one of these organizations through significant change can be like directing an orchestra that only has lead violin players: on paper, it has tremendous potential, but it’s the harnessing part that’s hard.

So when someone is successful at leading change in one of those organizations, we should take notice. Let’s talk about two of these success stories:
The first is Joel Podolny at Yale’s School of Management. In one year, Podolny led the redesign of the entire MBA curriculum and got unanimous support for it. (There’s a Harvard Business School case about it.)

The second is William Bowen at Princeton. In Lessons Learned: Reflections of a University President, Bowen recounts how Princeton decided whether it should become coeducational back in the 1960s. Sure, that’s a trivial matter these days but, back then, it was a radical proposition with passionate advocates on both sides.

The two processes had similarities: the power was decentralized; they addressed a large, complex issue; and they dedicated plenty of time to the analysis. And both processes were successful. So let’s look at key elements that, I think, enabled these successes:

1. First, sell the concept of change; then go in the details. There should be widespread agreement that we should question the status quo. But as you initiate the analysis, you don’t have to agree on what you’d like to replace it with.
2. Don’t force your preconceptions. To do so, the key is to avoid measuring success on the outcome of the process but on the process itself: if you’ve engaged all relevant stakeholders in a constructive, evidence-fueled analysis that has the success of the organization as its primary objective, you should call it a victory, irrespective of the outcome. (And ensure that the other stakeholders do the same.)Anyone who is in a distributed-power organization knows it, you might have the right answer but if your stakeholders aren’t convinced that it is the right answer, you won’t go anywhere. So you can’t be perceived as manipulating the outcome of an analysis, rather you have to let the group get to their own conclusions and feel that they have done so.In Bill Clinton’s words: “the problem with any ideology is that it gives the answer before you look at the evidence.” You don’t want to be following an ideology, so let the evidence drive the conclusion.
3. Leverage committees / involve many people. First, if possible, engage various people through a task force. This will give you a larger buy-in and help prevent that people think you are trying to force your ideas. It will also make you smarter, as groups usually are brighter than individuals. HBS: “Podolny set up a steering committee and six subcommittees. More than two-thirds of the senior faculty members were involved in at least one of the committees.”
4. Don’t lead the committee. Instead, appoint a well-respected leader whom, ideally, is not convinced that the change is necessary but open minded. This is key—and hard to do. It is key because it will help you show, again, that you aren’t forcing your preconceptions. But it’s also hard because you let go of some authority and, potentially, you might not get the results that you originally hoped for. Bowen: “President Goheen chose two highly regarded individuals who were known to be open-minded and perhaps even skeptical.”
5. Get the right people involved. Engage the key opinion setters: if you don’t, they will engage themselves and, chance are, it won’t be pretty. Also engage non-experts; that is, get people to think outside their area of expertise to boost your committee’s innovation potential.
6. Take your time. While it’s important to sell the concept of change quickly (step 1), it’s also important to let stakeholders assimilate the notion of change and, eventually, embrace it. The more drastic the change, the more time it will take. Bowen: “There was no rush to judgment, and trustees were given ample opportunity to raise questions and express their views.”
7. Don’t shoot for unanimity. First, unanimity can be dangerous, especially if you reach it early, because it can be indicative of groupthink. Second, it is not necessarily desirable. Bowen points it out: “The presence of eight dissenters signaled to the alumni body, in particular, that there had been a real debate and no pressure to go along just to go along.”