Leading change: the practitioner’s view

A few years ago, I was in a group that got lost during a hiking trip. One member of the group said “I know the way out. We just have to turn right and walk in that direction for 10 minutes; we will see a little farmhouse and the road to civilization”. He was sure of himself. We followed his lead but after 15 minutes of walking, no sign of the little farmhouse. The group began questioning the direction. After a while, it became obvious that we were led in the wrong direction. This leader failed and the magnitude of his failure was greater because of the high degree of confidence he expressed.

Bush Approval Ratings

This graph shows the evolution of George W. Bush’s approval rating over time. His approval rating rose to 68% in March 2003, at the beginning of the Iraq war, and declined steadily after that. It is now at 26%. Not only did the war not proceed the way he had told people but there is a growing number of Americans questioning the idea of going to Iraq in the first place.

How to lead?
First: be right
No matter how good you are at executing and communicating, and how much charisma and resolution you have, if you are wrong, you will fail. Churchill was resolved but he was right. In the hiking story above, the leader was sure of himself but wrong. He overestimated how lost we were.
To be right, you need facts.
In real life, we do not know with certainty the actual situation. In the context of uncertainty (most real life situations), the more certain you are the more likely you will be wrong. Facts are even more important in uncertain situations. Why? What you know and what don’t know are facts. ”I am lost in the forest” is a fact. If the leader in the hiking story would have admitted the true level of uncertainty about how lost we were, he could have proposed a series of tests. For example, he could have propose a short walk in a different direction to gather more facts about the current location. A negative result would then have been seen as new information on where not to go instead.
Second: Communicate facts (reason for change)
It is very difficult to convince people to change something if they are not convinced about what the problems are and their urgency, see John Kotter. Two economists might disagree even if they use the same economic model. By separating fact from opinion, we might understand the input or assumption and understand why those economists disagree. Whenever you make a decision where people must follow your lead, facts are the essence of getting people agreeing on the current situation and the course of action.
In business transformation (change Management), facts are more than data “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.” (Sign hanging in Albert Einstein’s office at Princeton), facts are like an observable situation that can be described and shared.

Once facts are gathered and separated from opinion, they can be shared during working sessions. Those sessions permit the group to agree on problems. Consequently, it will be much easier to get the group to agree on a course of action once they have agreed on the problems. During those working sessions, the focus is first on the current situation, not the course of action. Ensure everybody that they are respected and never discard people expressing bad news (don’t shoot the messenger). Often they might be your best source of facts. To ensure the free flow of information, remove red tape, formal presentation and favor a more informal organization with a high degree of respect, see ‘‘The Death to Bureaucracy” from Jack Welch.
Third: gather more facts
Often, you need to collect more facts. Creativity and imagination are required to gather facts. For example, in the above story, a series of short walks in different directions is an approach to gather more facts on the current location. Gathering facts is boiled down to: observation, experiment, calculation and simulation. Fact gathering is not a consensus driven process. You are collecting evidence. Never rely on opinion. Humans are biased and opinions rarely correlate with facts.
In business transformation initiative, the best sources of fact are field studies. The field is rich and wild; people develop very sophisticated tactics in real work environment. Knowledge lies in the field, not in meeting rooms. The worst source of facts is the traditional hierarchy : line manager, director and executive. Facts gathered through this path will surely be altered, trimmed down or hidden.
Fourth: prevent bias
Facts may be distorted. When relying on human sources, multiple independent sources are required. Be careful with surveys or focus groups, they do not gather facts but opinions. They provide the tip of an iceberg. Avoid group meetings. Groups are only good to solve problems, to brainstorm or share information.
Objectivity does not exist; you have to cope with that.
No matter how good the information is, if you are biased, or already convinced of the answer, you are in danger. A bias could, for example, lead one to accept or deny the truth of a claim, discard evidence or look for evidence that confirms a preconceived idea (confirmation bias). In the hiking story, the guy seemed so sure of himself that we trusted him even if the direction he gave did not ring a bell to us.
To reduce bias, observe yourself to see if you feel emotional. You need to detach yourself. It is well known that a lawyer should never defend himself or a medical doctor should never diagnose himself. Ask different persons in a one on one session to interpret facts. Don’t give them your thoughts. Observe the difference in their interpretation. Try to think as fresh as you can. Gather all facts prior to a decision. In order to avoid bias, good investigators will collect evidence and then conclude. After all this work, let the decision emerge naturally. If you still do not feel not comfortable, your instinct will tells you there is something wrong, listen to it. It means there are still uncertainties that you have to work with, or simply wait.
The four steps described here relate to making the right decision and communicating that decision (vision) to a group of people. Once you have the right direction and a group of people agreeing with you on the course of action, executing change is a piece of cake.
Leading people in the right direction requires hard work, time, experience and wisdom. You can get there faster by practicing the right thing. For more on the subject, I suggest reading John Kotter on this subject and “Engineering psychology” by Christopher Wickens.


3 thoughts on “Leading change: the practitioner’s view

  1. These are very interesting assertions.

    Concerning dealing with uncertainties here are some empirical results relative to strategies applied by navy operators:
    •Gathering more data(a good strategy, if there is time available).
    •Making assumptions to fill data gaps (risky, but usually necessary).
    •Waiting for situation to be resolved (sacrifices time).
    •Ignoring the uncertainty and passing through (impulsive, but there are times, when it is necessary).
    •Plan for the worst possible case (in this case uncertainty is managed by making sure the plan is sufficiently cautious to handle the situation).
    •Increasing robustness of the plan (this is to be more cautious by taking actions.
    •Being opportunistic (instead of trying to build a detailed plan, one accepts the uncertainties and prepares to improvise when the situation develops, pursuing the lines that are working best).
    •Shaking the tree (Decision maker resolves the uncertainty by taking an action that requires a reaction).

    Many of these points are consistent with this paper. However, sometime in real life situations there could be time constraints that could demand a quick decision and no time is available to gather data.Here, in my opinion the life experience, being expert in domain would be very important (it about being opportunistic, making assumptions to fill the gaps, etc.).

  2. I concur generally with your approach although I would advocate that “be right” is something that can be said about the past, not about the future. No one can be right about the future. Both Churchill and your hiking group leader were right when the decisions were made, only history proved one right and the other wrong.

    To lead organizations, leaders need to surround themselves with the right experience. People who have been there, and know the pitfalls of bravado decisions. Then the team, not the leader, need to face, what Jim Collins calls the “brutal reality”. There is not much worse than making decisions on the wrong premises. But, you have to remember you will never have all the facts, and if you wait to have all the data, you will never make decisions and the organization will calcify. So at one point, when sufficient facts are know, you have to document your assumptions, and when the team believe the heading is right, you have to take a leap of faith to the next check point.

    Remember, when you write a plan, you just gave God a good laugh.

  3. I agree with Robert. It’s always easy to see whats wrong in the pass. It’s more difficult to see how the present is made. We use a term in french to explain this… The term is “après-coup”…It’s an “après-coup” logical analyse. Most of the time, we’re not sure of anything.

    What about the intuition? When we have an intuition, we don’t have the facts. I think about arts like music, painting, cinema, etc. We have a feeling of something very strongly. We just feel very intensely what we have to do. We don’t proceed by facts but by an accurate feeling about sounds, images, movements, etc. We can have a mental representation of what it is about. We’re far from facts.

    To come back to your example, the context of urgency came out of the fact you were lost. It made you afraid and not very receptive for a calm detached attitude. You decided to follow a person who represented the idee of leading. You felt something’s good with this guy. However, the history proved he was wrong because of the bad results you got.

    I think the context of a decision is a crucial point. Making a decision for the next bar of a piece of music is not the same thing of making a decision for a navigational bar for a Website. The only similar thing is … making a decision…but the context is completely different.

    The experience is another important point. But, i would need 2 days more… :):)

    Anyway, it’s a very interesting article. Thanks mister François.

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