Can change leaders turn a transformation effort into a ‘game of chicken?’

To paraphrase Herbert Yardley, ‘once the money is in the pot it is no longer yours.’ The investment you have made is history and you just need to focus on what you will do next, based on the best information you have to hand and your understanding of the wider context in which you are playing the game. Yardley was referring to poker. But it is also great advice for senior HR people charged with delivering an organisation-wide transformation effort and the leaders and managers expected to bring about the desired change on the ground. 

Ignoring your experience

Transformation, indeed, change of any scale, never happens in a straight line. There are always bumps in the road. Learning to drive is full of kangaroo starts. Developing as a leader is equally full of embarrassing oversights and errors of judgement. Growing a successful business feels like taking two steps forward and one-and-a-half steps backwards at times. 

Changing an organisation is no different.

The best-made plans often only survive the initial implementation phase. We all know this. And yet … organisations who have committed to change, often fail to recognise moments when the forward momentum stalls and a course-redirect might be called for, or at least a pause initiated, to assess what is going on. Too many pressures on key players often mean they do not get chance to stop, pause or even reverse, even when doing so could well save time and precious resources in the medium and long-term. 

Changes to change

John Kotter’s 8-Step Change model included as its first step, creating a sense of urgency. Doing so is clearly important in gaining and retaining momentum. Kotter states that the counterpoint to urgency is employee complacency. But moving so quickly forward that there is insufficient time to check-in, review and stop if required, are also potential outcomes of creating a sense of urgency that treats any pause as a sign of failure, weakness or even complacency. 

There are three important factors that ‘change leaders’ benefit from building into their approach to transformation efforts, in order to improve the likelihood of success: 

  1. Scheduled review of progress, not just for those charged with the whole organisation effort, but those leading and managing change on the ground. This review should focus on the sticking points of course, but less obviously perhaps is to ensure you are looking out for signs of when the system is over-heating because you are being way more successful than you planned for. This is one error I failed to spot in an early business of my own, where we grew way too fast for the resources we had available and that cost me and my employees dearly. I also see it as something that we generally don’t prepare for enough: over-achieving. 
  2. The pre-agreed accountability of all involved, to call a time-out to proceedings and not to be judged negatively for doing so. Notice this is not just the responsibility for the issue (or, perish the thought, “ownership”!) but the express requirement to act and to be heard as a respected leader of the business when taking a moment would be useful to consider. Be prepared that the machine will not actually stop but your concerns or observations need to be heard and considered. 
  3. The courage to communicate to stakeholders of all levels in the organisation that progress has stalled, the context has changed, the desired transformation is no longer fit for purpose. If you have the title that infers you are a leader within the business then your job in part is to help the whole organisation, not only look out for your own fiefdom. You are an organisational asset. Therefore, it behoves you to be brave and stick your head above the parapet when the situation demands it. 

The words of Jean-Baptiste Say, a French economist are helpful to keep in mind when leading change in your organisation. Say, who first coined the word entrepreneur in the early 19th century,, said:

“The entrepreneur shifts economic resources out of an area of lower and into an area of higher productivity and greater yield.”

Jean-Baptiste Say

If senior change leaders can adopt the mindset of an entrepreneur then they will be well positioned to adapt quickly, in an informed way and move resources in a way that helps improve the likelihood of their endeavours succeeding.

But, taking that approach takes some confidence. It may mean stopping or pausing your plan, it may mean reversing out of a change effort for the greater good. As Caspar Berry said on an episode of our podcast, there is a discipline required with change and uncertaint. And that discipline is the ability to stop when there are no advantages to continuing the effort. Yes, you may have to battle two difficulties: firstly, some self-imposed guilt about ‘quitting’ (you are not!) and secondly, the powerful pull of the ‘sunk-cost fallacy.’

For the former I suggest reframing any vital halt you impose to a change effort as an expression of wisdom; for the latter, I point you back to Yardley: all your efforts to date are no longer yours, they are gone. Move on. Or don’t. But do so with a mind clear and aware of the trap of sunk-cost.

Exigence works with organisations to deliver full-stack HR leadership development solutions, from Executive and senior team coaching to group and AI coaching. If you would like to discuss how we can help you deliver quantifiable impacts for your organisation, we’d love to hear from you – just contact us here.