Even as the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths continues to climb towards an unknown apex, the conversation shift to re-opening suspended businesses began this past week. People sent home to rely on unemployment to cover their debts and household expenses are anxious to relieve this stress. Owners of shuttered businesses who need revenue to cover fixed costs and inventory commitments are eager to open their doors. Consumers, limiting their shopping to essential retailers, are keen to have access to businesses they love.
I live in Kentucky, where Governor Andy Beshear speaks to our citizens daily. He is a steadfast beacon of truth, compassion, and thoughtful leadership. He has charged business owners with the mission to begin planning and preparing now, well in advance of restrictions lifting, for the next step, which is not a return to business as usual, but a coronavirus required adaptation.
As a practitioner of change management for my entire career, I applaud Governor Beshear's wisdom and guidance. The change before us is unlike the business challenges most of us have navigated. This task requires us to "build the plane while we are flying it." I expect decisions from the government to trickle almost daily and frequently change as information and learning emerge. Success will require agility and an ability to improvise in the face of a rapidly changing landscape.
Despite this, there are lessons from change management that can help us navigate our future more successfully. Today I want to start a conversation to share the best practices of change by focusing on what I consider to be the most important pitfall to avoid - DON'T CONFUSE COMPLIANCE WITH COMMITMENT.
You can look at almost every area of your life and see examples of this statement in action, but here's an example from my childhood.
I am the younger sibling in my family. I grew up in a neighborhood filled with children, and riding bicycles was a favorite pastime. Because I was three years younger than my sister, she was allowed to ride her bike further than I. My restricted area was the street right in front of my house. Unlike parents of today, my mother did not sit outside and supervise us while we played. She sent us out to play for hours at a time while she did housework. We knew the rules but successfully skirted them without getting caught on many occasions. Thus, emboldened one sunny day, I rode my bike to the end of the street, thinking that my mother was too busy to notice. As you have guessed, I was wrong and swiftly punished for disobeying the rules. Why did I do it? It was simple. I didn't comply because, in my mind, I could do anything that my older sister could do, and therefore this restriction was unnecessary. As a parent, I now understand the dangers of an unsteady rider on a heavily trafficked street and the difference in the awareness and responsibility contained in that three year age gap. But at that moment in my life, I complied when observed and otherwise ignored the rules. My agreement lacked genuine commitment.
As evidenced by my 25 years coaching leaders through change, the behavior I described from my childhood is also present in adulthood. It is easy to ascribe this behavior to defiant personality types, but psychologists studying human behavior affirm that this response is typical. As stated in one of my favorite quotes from the late '90s, "People will tolerate your conclusions but act on their own."
Here are three tips to help you avoid this massive pothole on the road to change.
ONE. Communicate about the change early, frequently, and honestly.
Leaders frequently make the mistake of trying to package everything into a tidy solution, as if it is a beautifully wrapped Christmas gift that they unveil. It is an easy trap to fall into when you have the personal expectation that you must have all of the answers. The difficulty is two-fold. First, you have wrestled with the problem and arrived at the solution for weeks or months. This time is a benefit that your employees do not have. Suddenly they are expected to sprint the distance you've covered in a one-hour meeting. Secondly, they do not have insight into the journey that shaped your decisions. They do not see all the alternatives that you studied, their insufficiencies, and reasons for dismissal. The compromises and hard limitations are not visible. In short, they experience the change as something done to them that they feel expected to accept without question.
TWO. Involve the users in the design.
Automakers learned this lesson many years ago when they turned to women for market research insights about the family car. Mothers experienced the tribulations of fitting multiple car seats, strollers, and other kid gear in a vehicle that also needed space for the unexpected stop to restock at a store. They knew the importance of always having drinks and snacks on hand for grumpy children who needed to refuel. They understood that age differences require individualized entertainment options and the associated power access for lengthy trips. Mothers were subject matter experts about how cars are an extension of the spaces in which people live, not merely a means of transportation.
Unless you perform the job every day, it is highly likely that you know the details intimately enough to sit in the design seat alone. Discrepancies often exist between written procedures and daily execution. Those closest to the work often see opportunities others would miss. Additionally, these individuals have valuable insight about potential concerns from their fellow employees and prove helpful in discussions regarding communication of the changes.
THREE. Choose to co-create versus dictate.
Last week I shared thoughts about the importance of listening and the skill of generative listening, which shifts the intention to uncovering a shared future. Change is a dynamic process. A mindset of learning and adaptation facilitates the open exchange of ideas and, ultimately, the co-creation of a new way forward that everyone chooses to embrace. Having been heard and understood, having participated, the natural outcome is commitment. If you find yourself defending, convincing, or compelling, you are on the compliance path. Stop yourself and, in the words of Stephen Covey, seek first to understand and then to be understood. Focus on hearing mutual agreement. You may be shocked to find five percent or less divergence in the thinking. Then start building from points of agreement and get deeply curious about understanding what underlies the other ideas. It takes a little longer, but the ROI is worth it.