Our ideas make no difference if we cannot get others – our colleagues, partners, bosses, investors – to embrace them. Through the 120 or more interviews I’ve conducted this last year with innovators, I’ve heard over and over again that change is constant and those who have impact are skilled at getting people to embrace this fact.
I recently interviewed Ellen Auster, professor of strategic management at Schulich School of Business, York University. She also co-authored Stragility and co-founded Stragility Change Management with Lisa Hillenbrand, former global marketing director at Procter & Gamble. Together they bring three decades of experience and research into what it takes to navigate the political challenge of change. They break down what for many seems an impossible task into a compelling, proven framework you can use – today – to inspire adoption of your ideas.
Change is no longer an event
In the slower-moving past, change was an event. You recognized the need, developed a plan, built support, then coasted until a new change was needed. But in the accelerated, dynamic environment we now compete in, you rarely get to stop. Change is constant.
Stragility, Auster explains, is about thriving in a world that demands strategic, agile, people-power change. According to Auster:
- We are moving away from the “lock and load” model of change in which you find the best strategy, lock it in, then implement. Today, change requires continuous sensing – the competition, technologies, market dynamics – and shifting.
- We are moving away from a “tell and sell” model in which you developed a plan then told people how to implement or sold your idea. Today, success requires being able to inspire and engage others to WANT the change.
- We are moving away from change efforts that focus on the “hardware,” the metrics and plans. While these are still important it is equally important to understand, and embrace, the political challenge.
- We are moving away from a model in which you could unleash a change, work hard to embrace it, then rest. By the time your current change has taken root, it is already time to change again. This requires developing “change fitness” so that you can continually change without burning out.
In other words, to succeed when change is an ongoing process rather than a destination, you must embrace four skills:
- Sensing and shifting
- Embracing your inner politician
- Inspiring and engaging
- Building change fitness (or endurance)
Apply four skills
To see how these skills come into play for you, imagine you have just recognized a need for your organization to embrace something new. You may not be the CEO, so cannot dictate the change happening. How do you succeed in getting the organization to embrace your idea?
- Sense and shift: Look outside of your organization. Look at the competitors on the periphery. Are there other people (maybe not direct competitors) doing this better or differently than you are? For example, if you are working for a software company and recognize you need to get closer to the competitor, you could look at other software firms, but their insights may not yield anything innovative. Instead, perhaps you would look at telecom companies who must compete in a hyper-competitive market and win through customer intimacy. How do telecom companies get close to the customer?
- Embrace your inner politician: Politics are often considered “taboo.” We think we should not have to play the political game. But it’s infinitely better to have a political strategy than to go in blind. When you are trying to launch something new from the middle of your organization, it is important to find sponsors from above. Look for the key influencers – people others look to in order to sway their opinion. Do a “coffee connect” – an informal meeting over coffee – with them well in advance of pitching your idea. Find mentors who can help you tailor your pitch. Find peers who are ready to pitch in and support you when the time comes.
- Inspire and engage: Build a tight business case that proves your idea, but do not stop there. Logic is a poor tool for getting people to change their view. Emotion gets people to WANT to believe, logic helps them feel confident in their new belief. Craft a story that will resonate with the top but that also provides compelling stories that will help others get engaged. Come up with sticky mantra, a name for your change that people can understand and repeat. Build stories of the impact your change will have. If you are working for a telecom company, for example, and have an idea to reduce the response time of technicians, technicians may just hear your idea as requiring more and faster work. But if instead you share customer stories – the mother who missed work because a technician didn’t arrive in time – you link your change to something meaningful and human.
- Build change fitness: Give your organization time adapt to your idea. Rather than try to launch it all at once, propose a pilot to test your idea on a small scale. Try your idea in one division or one geography. Plan on taking time to learn from your tests. Reflect and improve the idea before you try to launch. Auster calls this “going slow to go fast.”
Embrace your inner politician: analyze six stakeholders
All four skills are important, but here we’ll focus on the second skill – embracing your inner politician. Marketers and innovation experts have long embraced the idea of an adoption curve consisting of a tail (the first to adopt your idea), followed by the top of the bell (a big majority in the middle), followed by another tail (a small group at the end who will resist your idea). A similar model applies to your effort to build support for your idea. Auster and Hillenbrand have found you should consider six types of stakeholders:
- Sponsors: Leaders and colleagues who will be responsive to the idea, give it credibility and offer resources.
- Promoters: Influential people who can generate buzz.
- Indifferent fence-sitters: People not yet ready to embrace your idea because they are too busy to get their heads around what you are proposing.
- Cautious fence-sitters: People who think your idea does not quite “feel” right but are not sure why, and people who are hesitant because their friends are not supportive of the idea.
- Positive skeptics: People who have well-thought-through, justifiable reasons to question your idea because, for example, they are worried about the potential impact on the organization. They are skeptical for very good reasons that you should want to hear.
- Negative skeptics: People who will resist your idea because they fear it will hurt their department, challenge their power, or require skills they do not think they have. The key to managing them is to listen to them and to try to understand the emotions that are triggering this skepticism.
Having identified these groups, you should “work the tails”. Focus on the early adopters, the sponsors and promoters, as well as the positive and negative skeptics. Do not yet worry about the fence-sitters. If you can manage the evolution of your idea, building strong support from sponsors while understanding the reasons for the skeptics, you will create a dynamic in which the fence-sitters will naturally join your movement.
Do this political work before you pitch your idea and you will map out a much smoother path to your goal.