When leading a change programme, the bare minimum requirement of a leader is to be seen to be in control.
The people you are leading will have a range of anxieties about the change which different individuals will feel to a different depth. The nature of the anxiety and the depth of the anxiety will change over time, sometimes precipitously.
The leader, however, must be seen to be in control. More than that, except for the odd private lapse of confidence which bedevils the best leaders, the leader of change must be in control.
My observations from being affected by and leading change are that there are a few guiding principles for maintaining control.
Principle One: Focus on the goal
Day-to-day, leaders will receive good news and bad about the activities which make up the programme of change. Some activities will be ahead of where you thought they should be, some will be falling behind, or under seemingly impossible challenge to actually be completed.
Getting excited about activities which are ahead of progress and getting despondent or activating a reactionary process about activities which are not going well is sure way of communicating a lack of control.
Celebrating progress in a change programme is an important part of a change programme communication strategy. However, the celebration should be for progress towards the goal. The progress should always be measured as a balance of good and poor progress against the goal, where we have come from and the challenges which lie ahead of us.
Keeping a calm focus on the goal whilst encouraging overall progress and providing specific resources and guidance to fix problematic activities will give the team involved in the change increased courage and determination.
Reacting positively to good news and negatively to bad news only increases anxiety.
Of course, this principle assumes that the goal is clear and well understood. If it is not, take urgent action to clarify the goal of the change, its delivery date and ensure it is communicated in the languages and styles that the recipients will be most comfortable with and the mediums they have easiest access to.
Principle Two: Understand the building blocks of the change
Any change will have some key building blocks without which the change will not be affected. Building blocks will include items, for example, such as changing the competence of people, building infrastructure, purchasing equipment, implementing software changes, changing processes, developing products or gaining market understanding.
As a leader, focus a heavier proportion of your time ensuring the key building blocks of change are given the resources and management thinking time necessary to make sure they are completed.
Ensure more effort is spent on planning the building blocks. Demand more rigorous understanding of the critical path to completing the building blocks on time. Be prepared to spend more budget to compete the elements when problems arise which require more resources. Insist on a detailed risk management strategy being developed and executed.
Leaders who do understand the building blocks of the change they initiated ensure not only that the organisation as a whole is seeing the wood for the trees, but will coach others to act similarly in their sphere of influence almost without knowing it.
Principle Three: Develop and execute a risk management strategy
If we all had a crystal ball that worked, we would not need to develop a risk management strategy. Unfortunately, for leaders of major change programmes, a working crystal ball has yet to be found. Further, change programmes, more so than any other project, are full of uncertainties and ambiguities.
The main reason for the uncertainty and ambiguity is that change programmes always involve or impact people. They impact one or more of customers, shareholders, employees including team leading the change, public servants, governments, suppliers and the general public.
How all, or one of these groups of people will react, is not ever really known until the change programme starts to play out as it is not just the change that causes reactions nor what people do, but importantly, what people say about the change and elements in it and how they say it.
Completing a risk analysis is moderately easy. Every change programme has its nay sayers. Utilise them and a good range of experienced, inexperienced, intellectual and practical people to determine what the risks are for the change programme. Developing a robust and actionable (in time) contingency plan for those risks which are considered to be high impact, whether high or low probability, is more difficult but must be done.
Knowing your risks, building contingency plans and making those contingency plans part of the change programme is buying insurance for a leader’s ability to stay in control.
Principle Four: Communicate early and often
The simplest way for a leader to lose control of a change programme is to allow the rumour mill to develop and then run. The leader and their team are inevitably caught up in reacting to rumours, reducing the time they can spend on the key building blocks of change. Additionally, and fatally if it is allowed to happen, the concentration of the leader, the change programme team and the organisation as a whole drops away from focusing on the goal to the minutiae of the day.
Leaders must develop a communication strategy that encompasses all stakeholders and what it is that they want communications with them to make them feel, think and do. The communication strategy must be built on what messages, through what mediums, at what frequency, delivered by which person, will help the stakeholders feel, think and do what will be helpful for the success of the change programme.
The communication strategy must take into account the different filters of experience, upbringing, emotional state and thinking styles that people in the organisation will apply to the receipt of communication. The filters will change over time.
Communications, therefore, need to be plural and frequent to allow people to assimilate the messages at their own speed.
If people are not told what is happening in a major change programme, their anxiety leads to them making their own conclusions based on past history, snippets of information heard in corridors, tea rooms and read in newspapers. The leaders of the change programme and their team then have to react to what is not real rather than what is real.
Staying in control and being seen to stay in control is a paramount behaviour for a leader of major change. It is what they are paid for. It is difficult at times. Staying true, however, to a few key principles makes it much easier than it otherwise would have been.