By John Austin, Ph.D.
Many of us have been there. The plan comes to you. It’s been successfully piloted. Teams of people from (HQ/the corporate office/university administration/the hive mind) have spent months designing it. It arrives on your desk complete with a snazzy, professionally presented communication plan and a detailed list of steps. Your job is clear. Execute the plan!
Create a Habit of Challenging a Plan
It is always tempting to believe a plan is perfect as it is and any failure is due not to the design but to the execution. Obviously, this belief will only be stronger if the plan has already been successfully executed once already. In such a case, it is even easier to point to past success as evidence that current struggles must indicate a flaw in the local leadership team and not a flaw in the plan design. “If it worked there, it will work here” is a pervasive mindset. These four questions counterbalance to this mindset.
Having a routine for quickly assessing a new situation before attempting to implement a change is an essential tool for a leader. The key word here is quickly. Unfortunately, we often feel immense pressure to act in these situations, and this pressure short-circuits our efforts at situational awareness. These four questions help a leader hone in on the essential, unique attributes of a new context prior to taking action.
As is the case with many things, spending a little time up front saves lots of time and headache later.
Question 1: Whom do you need to know?
The stakeholders change in each context. All too often stakeholder mapping is done only once during an execution plan and usually at the start. Of course, stakeholder interests evolve over time and ought to be tracked. In addition, every new context has a unique position in relation to stakeholders.
Question 2: What does success look like here?
Change management experts place significant importance on communication efforts for organizational changes. The end result is often a set of general messages explaining the value of the initiative, which is then provided to managers to help them execute the change in their area. This question is about translating these general statements about the goals of the change into more specific statements about what the future looks like in this local environment if the change is successful.
A more specific framing of this question: One day in the future, you arrive at work, and it is clear that this initiative has been completely successful. Describe that day. Be specific about what is different and how things have improved. For whom have situations improved?
Once the general goal of the initiative is translated into a local success story, it starts to have local ownership and feels less like an outside idea being forced on local participants. As with any idea translation, it is likely that the initiative is subtly changed when described in terms of local success.
Question 3: What can’t you control?
This question is about turning your focus to the key uncertainties. To do this rapidly, generate a PEST+ (political, economic, social, technological, other) list of uncertainties in the situation. At a minimum, you need to identify, categorize, and prioritize the top uncertainties. If there is time, identify how to monitor those uncertainties as well. Those who participate in a PEST+ exercise become more attuned to the uncertainties in their environment and more comfortable discussing what is and is not within their control.
Question 4: Where might you be wrong?
There is only one certainty about any change initiative: it is wrong. We make our plans at the time when we know the least about the world—at the beginning of the process. Even the most brilliantly designed plans will include some assumptions about the environment that will turn out to be incorrect. All plans are wrong. Skilled leaders accept this, and rather than spending their time trying to design perfect plans and fighting to force the world to fit into them, they spend their time monitoring for misalignment and adjusting the plan on the fly to account for these design errors.
Why these four questions?
Obviously there are many questions one can ask to get a good read on a situation. I settled on these four questions based on a survey of senior organizational change practitioners I conducted in 2013 and 2014. In an open-ended question, I asked these practitioners to state the single, most important reason that change initiatives do not succeed. The most common responses were lack of stakeholder knowledge, unclear goals, unanticipated shifts in the environment, and misalignment between the change plan and the needs of the situation. These questions focus attention on these common difficulties.
If it worked there, it will work here!
First, build a city. That was my advice to the US National Park Service. They had asked me how other national park sites could learn from the success of Golden Gate National Recreation Area’s volunteer program. I said it jokingly. However, there is truth in the recommendation. If every national park had a metropolitan area of approximately seven million people, combined with a culture that encourages being active and civically connected, I suspect parks would find the task of attracting volunteers to be less challenging.
To be sure, other parks can learn quite a bit from the success of the GGNR volunteer program. However, it would be silly to discount the demographic advantage this particular site enjoys. Taking an initiative designed to fit this urban park and trying to make it work in Glacier National Park (located in sparsely populated Montana) does not sound like a recipe for success.
Of course, most contextual differences are not this obvious. We have to work harder to identify how one situation is different from another because we so badly want to replicate our successes that we are sorely tempted to discount the differences. This temptation drives us to focus on the great story of success and the specifics of the initiative that made it work in the previous context. Only as an afterthought do we examine contextual differences.
Countering this tendency requires us to start with a focus on the context. Only after a situational assessment is done honestly and vigorously do we turn back to the initiative. Consider the actions of most successful new leaders when they first step into a leadership role. The wise ones wait before making changes and force themselves to observe before acting. A submarine captain in the US Navy once said to me, “How can I know something is broken without first seeing it not work?” Forcing yourself to learn about the situation can help prevent the premature action that often contributes to premature initiative death.
Rather than looking for similarities, skilled leaders train themselves to look for differences. They train themselves to ask the question, “What is different about this situation?” rather than, “What is familiar about this situation?”
This article was originally posted at LinkedIn.
John Austin, Ph.D. is a faculty member of LEADERSHIP USA.