(Originally published in Issue #34 JETNETiQ Pulse) https://bit.ly/JETNETiQPulse34

Whatever we defined as change before last year, we can all agree that the current definition has significantly expanded. As we finish 2021, the horizon remains foggy, whether in customer demand, supply chain and company capabilities, or employee well-being and commitment.

Successfully leading our teams and organizations through momentous change has never been more challenging or essential. This post explores several ways to lead effectively in a VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous) environment, an abstraction that, for all of us, has become more concrete than ever.

What is momentous change?

It is the sustainable change that increases trust, collaboration, and performance and acts as a differentiator. That requires us to focus on what matters. It is change that helps us be successful rather than busy.

Why do change efforts fall short of expectations?

Why do our change efforts frequently fall short of expectations?

  1. We lose our nerve, change our minds, and try a slimmed-down version that seems less risky. In short, we give up.
  2. We focus on tools and processes before people, forgetting that organizations don’t change unless their people do. Success happens when we bring them with us, not when we create a perfect technical solution.
  3. We define inevitable obstacles as failures rather than as a signal to double down, repeat our purpose, recall why we began this work in the first place, and continue forward. The threats driving our need to change didn’t suddenly go away. The bright light of unexpected obstacles temporarily blinded us.
  4. We communicate sporadically, vary our messages, and forget that repetition is the mother of skill. The resulting ambiguity leads to confusion, frustration, and disengagement in those leading and doing the work.
  5. We don’t make the distinction between delegating and abdicating our responsibilities. Momentous change requires imperfect yet relentless leadership at all levels.
  6. We focus on the map and ignore the compass. Change is non-linear, so our maps and plans need frequent adjustments. How we lead in these moments makes a difference. When we are clear about our values, ignore the noise, stay confident in our goals, have each other’s backs, and persist, momentous change has the space for emerging.

How do we successfully lead momentous change?

The Intersection of Culture, People, and Leadership

We start at the intersection of culture, people, and leadership. Ignoring the interdependency of these three elements kills transformation in its tracks. What follows are some straightforward tactics to keep your organization moving forward in the face of inertia and resistance.

Culture: The neighborhood housing our collective behaviors in which strategy lives or dies (acts as an accelerator or decelerator)

  • Vision, mission, and strategy are not enough 
  • Before we replace behaviors, we first have to stop doing stuff that no longer serves us
  • The toxicity of passive-aggressive and approach-avoidance cultures leads to vicious compliance, not commitment and engagement. The dismantling of these environments in favor of collaborative ones is critical to effective change. 
  • Employees demand flexibility in their work arrangements (and will vote with their feet if they don’t get it). Not the average employees, your best ones.
  • Including diverse voices, experiences, and viewpoints in decision-making creates breakthrough opportunities
  • Providing clarity of roles, goals, and expectations reduces confusion and accelerates performance.

People: The oxygen for innovation, productivity, and transformation

  • An organization changes only if and when its people choose to change, which happens when we challenge assumptions, beliefs, habits, and behaviors and replace each with things that serve us rather than slow us down.
  • Building a diverse team is a smart strategy because it’s good for business, not because it ticks a box.
  • Top talent is looking intently for greener pastures. The goal is to make ours the greenest to retain talent.
  • Your people want to be challenged, recognized, and rewarded.
  • They want to work collaboratively, and for leaders, they believe in.
  • Mutual respect and mutual purpose are drivers of increased importance to effective change.

Leadership: The catalyst for momentous transformation

  • Employees follow courageous leaders who believe in something and take a committed stand, especially when it’s challenging to do so.
  • Employees excel in the presence of clarity and consistency.
  • Employees want leaders who are moving them toward a meaningful purpose and a bigger story.

The Power of Courage, Humility, and Discipline

The intersection of culture, people, and leadership happens when leaders are intentional and use three leadership principles in concert to amplify results and increase the likelihood of successful change—courage, humility, and discipline.

Courage allows us to act despite fear. Humility makes room for safer, more inclusive, and productive discussions. Discipline builds and sustains habits that keep us on course.

Questions are a powerful tool to guide us along a path of courage, humility, and discipline. Invest an hour in answering these questions, and your return will be eliminating weeks of frustration and a renewed focus on the changes that matter to you and your team.

Courage 

  1. What assumptions are you making that keep you from acting?
  2. Which conversations are you not having right now that matter?
  3. What difference will this decision make in 1 day? One month? One year?
  4. What perfect answer are we waiting for rather than making progress now?
  5. How can we start moving now and make course adjustments later?
  6. What is the cost of doing nothing?

Humility 

  1. Which of my behaviors are getting in the way right now? Which team behaviors?
  2. Who can I trust to help me identify unhelpful behaviors and improve the way I’m showing up?
  3. How often am I showing up with curiosity rather than already knowing?
  4. What’s one thing I can do today to be more curious? More open to input? Less controlling?
  5. How does what I’m about to say help people be more committed to the change?

Discipline 

  1. How do I make sure to use consistent language in describing our change goals?
  2. In what ways do I routinely provide clarity to my team?
  3. What will keep us from changing our minds when this gets hard?
  4. How can we strengthen our defenses against shiny-object syndrome?
  5. What are the three things on my daily actions checklist that will lead me toward being a more effective leader?

Improving Depth and Breadth of Leadership

The last point is that meaningful change usually happens when top executives are not in the room. So, how do we provide the depth and breadth of leadership to get everyone ready? We ask and answer more questions:

  1. How are we influencing them while we are there?
  2. What expectations did we set?
  3. In what ways did we argue for our collective possibilities rather than our limitations?
  4. How big is the purpose we are trying to achieve? Are we chasing quarterly EBITDA, 100-slide board decks, or 5% labor cost reductions? Or are we successfully integrating an acquisition, reducing customer touchpoints from 7 to 3, and increasing MTBUR by 15% in the fleet?
  5. Based on our track record, how confident are people that we will do whatever it takes to stay the course? If confidence is lower than desired, what will we do differently this time?
  6. If we challenge our team members to stretch, what capabilities will they build as a result? Some 70% of individual growth happens during stretch assignments.
  7. Can our goals and timelines be accomplished by working in the same way we are now? If not, what do we do instead?

We’ve only scratched the surface of what it means to deliver momentous change. By focusing on the culture, people, and leadership components and adopting the principles of courage, humility, and discipline, you can ask and answer a set of questions that sets you and your team up for sustained success.