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I’m Doing This, and You’re Coming With Me

Accepting the axiom that business and process improvement is fundamentally an outcome of changed behavior, we must address how to lead a change in behavior. In order to do so, we must address the people with the behaviors. To address people, we must discuss leadership.

Accepting the axiom that business and process improvement is fundamentally an outcome of changed behavior, we must address how to lead a change in behavior.

If you follow my posts, then you have come to expect me to assert, repeatedly, that behavioral change is the key to successful performance improvement. I believe it firmly, and I’m willing and prepared to debate it. However, I find that most everyone accepts the assertion that has given the topic any thought or who has significant experience.

So, if the key is to change behavior, we must address the people with the behaviors. To address people, we must discuss leadership. Leadership is a critical element to any successful plan or enterprise designed to accomplish a major change.

We have at our disposal a great many resources giving advice about leadership. I’ll not argue or rehash those bits of wisdom here. Instead, let’s just briefly consider how to incorporate a leadership element into our plan for executing a significant change.

In my experience with driving performance change, behavioral change, and business cultural change or development, there is one strategy that overwhelmingly defines the difference between success and failure. That strategy is to start the change with the leaders.

When I say, “leaders,” I don’t just mean people in leadership positions or managers. I mean those people inside your organization to whom others go for advice and guidance. They may be lead engineers, seasoned buyers, charismatic salesmen, or the wide-eyed, fresh college graduate with energy that inspires.

When we can incorporate those leaders into our plans for change, we set our plans with a greater probability of success. If we allow those leaders to become part of the resistance (there is always resistance) we doom ourselves to aggravation and probable failure. In the latter case, it becomes a battle of wills and our own character and influence must be greater than our opposition’s if we are to win the contest.

Why would we choose to battle against those established and trusted leadership elements when we can recruit them? Obviously, we shouldn’t.

I’m not advising some form of manipulation. We have a change to drive, and we must include everyone because, ultimately, our organization must accept the behavioral change. I’m advising that we start the change with the leaders inside of our organization instead of trying to sway them later.

To succeed in leading the leaders, we must be a leader ourselves. We cannot expect those leaders to accept our change enterprise unless we demonstrate our own firm belief that it is the right and best thing to do, and our devotion to doing it. We must take an attitude of, “I’m doing this, and you’re coming with me!”

To this attitude we will receive a wide range of reactions when we lay out our vision. We must lay out our vision in clear and repeatable terms. Our leaders must understand it, and also be able to pass it on.

Those few who will most directly benefit from the new way will hopefully accept and adopt the vision we lay out. If they do not, then it is usually because they need to understand the plan in greater detail to be given more confidence. In this case, lay out the plan that you have in mind and engage these leaders to improve upon it.

After all, they are leaders. We must ask them to lead, not to follow. We get their endorsement and their willing participation when we engage them to lead the improvement that will make life easier for them.

When we can explain or, better yet, demonstrate how the new way will be better, our open-minded enthusiasts get excited. These leaders, regardless of their experience level or position of authority, are very powerful agents of change. Show them how the new system works and empower them to exercise it with abandon.

These leaders will accomplish two things, and they will do it rapidly. First, they will be the first to independently succeed using the new method, system, or way we are driving. They will prove the success of our enterprise. Second, they will quickly root out the bugs or oversights in our plan without being discouraged.

When skeptics or unwilling participants are the first ones through the system and they meet the first bump in the road, they will present the roughness of the path as proof that the plan is flawed and cannot succeed. However, when an energetic enthusiast encounters bumps in the way, they will overcome them and say, “hey you might want to take care of that for the next guy.” Because their sights are set on the destination ahead, and not the comfort left behind, they are not turned aside by adversity that meets trailblazers.

Ironically, the leaders that are least useful to us are the ones we most need to address. They are the curmudgeons. Inevitably, someone in our organization will fit the description of a leader whom others naturally follow and they will not particularly like the direction we are trying to drive the organization.

We cannot afford to fight a battle of influence with these leaders, so we cannot ignore them, and should not leave them to be the last to change if we can help it. Nor, because often our greatest skeptics are those with great experience, who have adopted or adapted best to the status quo, do we want to simply dismiss them or remove them. We should keep them if at all possible, so we must win them over.

The key to winning over the curmudgeons and resistors is to address their concerns. This means that we must drill down to discover their concerns. Many times, their concerns are well founded and point to holes in our plans. When this comes to light, use that information to improve your plans.

When the resisters’ concerns are being addressed, and when they see that you are truly endeavoring to make things better, many of them will start to come around. Engage them to take a leadership role instead of a follower role. Encourage them to help you improve the plan. Help them experience the better way. When this happens, they sometimes evolve from your greatest threats to your greatest assets.

With the resisters, especially the more experienced ones; it is critical to maintain your devotion and determination to drive success for your enterprise. Many times the sole reason for the resistance is that they have experienced half-hearted, half-baked, attempts at change so many times that they are tired of the exercise and jaded against further attempts. Win them over by addressing their concerns and demonstrating your ability to make this one succeed.

Sometimes, it isn’t clear what a resister’s concerns are or how to address them. Sometimes the best answer you can get to your inquiries is, “It’s just not going to work. That’s all.” This kind of response isn’t helpful, except when we understand what it really means. It means that there really isn’t a logical or rational reason for their feelings; they just aren’t comfortable with the change.

If you find yourself meeting such motivations, don’t be judgmental. All of us are prone to such reactions sometimes. I have come to accept the belief that human beings do not make decisions based on logic or rationale, we make decisions based on what feels right. Sometimes logic and rationale can make us feel better about our decisions, but ultimately decisions are emotional. If you don’t agree with that belief, I won’t argue, but I will ask you to recognize that at least some decisions are emotional.

When we find that the reason for the resistance is emotional and not necessarily rational, we can address it that way. Sometimes we can even point it out. “I’m not sure I’m getting a clear understanding of why this new direction won’t work. Are you sure it’s the plan that your are worried about, or are you just nervous about going through a change? 

Choose the words you need for the personality and the discussion you are having with him or her, but when we call someone out on the possibility that they don’t really have a good reason for resisting, other than fear of doing something differently, we can address the real issue, fear, directly. Sometimes, just challenging the notion, sets it to rest.

Ideally, we want the attitude of, “I’m doing this, and you’re coming with me,” to be a statement of your vision and leadership to drive a better future, and to be an invitation and expectation that other leaders in your organization should help. If we can’t win over the curmudgeons, then it takes on an implication of, “if you’re not coming with me, then you will be left behind.” When all else fails, a “join me or die” stance is better than allowing a leader to facilitate or garner more resistance.

As you make your plans for your improvement enterprise, be sure to engage your natural leaders within your organization in those plans for change. Address their needs and concerns, and engage them to help you drive the initiative. Do not allow them to form a resistance, or to become an example of resistance, to your improvement. The strategy to include leaders will mean the difference between success and failure.

Stay wise, friends.

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