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The Simple Secret to Leading Successful Change

Cartoon of people in conversation - #talkingchange

I started my career in management consulting with a global firm. I worked on ‘re-engineering’ projects and mergers & acquisitions. I processed mapped and wrote operations manuals. I learned the latest change management techniques and taught those techniques to new consultants from around the world. I mastered the art of the PowerPoint slide. For years I’ve led and consulted on change initiatives with all sorts of companies in all sorts of industries. And here’s the conclusion I’ve come to:  

Change doesn’t happen without a conversation.

Think of any change you have made in your personal or professional life? How many conversations did it take to make the change successfully? And which conversation was the tipping point to move you forward?

Engaging in conversations is the secret to leading successful change. And not just any conversations, but what I call AIM Changing Conversations – where the goal is to create common understanding through genuine curiosity. We’ve all been in many action item conversations, especially over the last two years, where we are in reactionary mode and assigning to dos to team members to try to stay ahead of the ever-changing landscape. But action item conversations are not the conversations that create commitment to change – they just add items to our never-ending to do lists.

AIM Changing Conversations are the secret to successful change. In my book – Talking Change: Must-Have Conversations for Successful Leaders, I outline 20 pivotal, AIM Changing conversations that are organized into three categories. Based on your situation you can choose your own conversation adventure.

  1. Self-Reflection Conversations: The conversations for people to recognize their typical reactions to change, uncover their personal resistance and roadblocks, and help them forge a path forward to lead themselves and their people through change. These conversations help people learn to embrace change and become resilient, change-savvy leaders.
  2. Planning and Managing Conversations: The conversations needed to plan change with purpose, craft change management plans, and manage a simple or complex change initiative.
  3. Engagement Conversations: The conversations needed to win people’s hearts and minds during change and to support each person’s transition from the old way to the new way. These conversations enable people to ask questions, feel heard, and make the choice to commit to the change.

The People Side of Change

Recently, as I’ve been reading through past and present change management articles from Harvard Business Review (HBR)Fast Company, and Forbes and I’ve been mentally mapping the recommended actions from these articles to one of the 20 AIM Changing Conversations in the book. One thing I noticed in many of the change management articles is that the change tactics mainly focus on the planning and managing of change initiatives. To gain commitment to change and to sustain the benefits of change initiatives, a focus on the people side of change needs to be included. For successful change, each person needs to move through their own transition to buy in and commit to the change. The question is, ‘how do you do that?’.

The Self-Reflection Conversations and the Engagement Conversations will make this happen, and as leaders become more comfortable facilitating these conversations, they will create change-adept and adaptable organizations that can change faster, realize better results, and gain a competitive advantage.

Johnny Warström, in his Forbes article from Feb. 8, 2021 – Change Management Is Key To Guiding Your Business Towards A ‘New Normal’ In 2021 had a similar sentiment – 'Implementing Change Management to help businesses embrace change and create an environment that welcomes transparency and openness will, in the long run, enable organizations to become more agile when approaching change in the future.'

The Difference Between Change and Transition

  • Change – the change is what is going to be different. Moving from one system to another (e.g., discontinuing use of your home-grown HR system and moving to SAP), or moving from your current house to a new house.
  • Transition – to quote William Bridges, transition is ‘the inner psychological process that people go through as they internalize and come to terms with the new situation that change brings about’ (e.g., accepting and becoming comfortable with the new system or new house).
  • Successful Change – successfully making the change happen (i.e., new system implemented) and successfully moving the majority of people through transition (i.e., they are committed to and using the new system effectively) equals successful change. This is when you have people in the organization committed to the new way AND continuing to make decisions and take action aligned with the new way (i.e., they haven’t reverted back to the old way).

There’s a Conversation for That: Aligning Change Management Tactics to AIM Changing Conversations

Conversations are the key to supporting change and transition and to achieving and maintaining successful change. Talking Change: Must-Have Conversations for Successful Leaders acts as a practical playbook to identify what conversations to have in what situation, with whom, and how.

In the vein of my recent LinkedIn campaign, There’s a conversation for that, I’ve listed some of the key change management tactics from the recent articles I’ve read and matched them to a conversation. So now you’ll not only know what to do but also how to do it.  To help you lead each conversation you can reference the book and listen to the associated Talking Change with Jen and Rebecca podcast episode where I outline tips, key questions, and examples of how I’ve used each conversation to lead change.

Change Tactic 1: Multifaceted transformational change needs to be appropriately scoped, resourced, and most importantly, integrated. Every initiative must be linked to every other initiative. (HBR – How Leaders Get in the Way of Organizational Change by Ron Carucci, April 30, 2021)

  • The Coordinate Your Asks Conversation (page 121*) – to identify and prioritize activities across the organization. Using a template like the ‘Month in a Box’ – and engaging with representatives from different departments in your organization, you’ll identify all the initiatives underway (both strategic and operational) and develop a clear picture of all the complementary and competing initiatives. Mapping this out visually to show the impact over time on your employees can be eye-opening. It’s a wonder they have any time to do their ‘day jobs’!

Change Tactic 2: Transformational change starts with an honest acknowledgement of how hard the work will be, how much capacity and discipline the organization actually has, and the personal commitments of sponsoring executives to change first. (HBR – How Leaders Get in the Way of Organizational Change by Ron Carucci, April 30, 2021)

  • The Situation Conversation (page 115*) – to assess the magnitude of the change and the readiness of your leaders and organization to implement the change. This conversation includes questions about how and how many people are affected by change. It’s also helps you review the track record of change implementation in your organization and determine if your leadership team is on board or not.

Change Tactic 3: Give people time to absorb or connect with the ideas. Allowing participants to digest what they heard and share it back in their own words can be powerful. (Fast Company – How leaders can resolve to make change that sticks in 2022 Lindsey Caplan and Josh Levine, Jan. 1, 2022)

  • The Debrief Conversation (page 147*) – to gauge what people have heard and understood about announced changes. This conversation references the Art of Focused Conversation method to uncover what people have seen and heard, their reactions and feelings, their interpretations, and ideas for decisions and actions to move forward.

Change Tactic 4: Instead of leading with the content (what’s in the email or slide deck) or the tool (a training course or town hall), start by asking what effect we want. Even if we don’t realize it, it’s the effect we’re ultimately after. (Fast Company – How leaders can resolve to make change that sticks in 2022 Lindsey Caplan and Josh Levine, Jan. 1, 2022)

  • The Why Conversation (page 100*) – to identify the compelling reason to make change now. Asking and answering questions like, ‘What will success look like?’, or ‘How will this change move us closer to our business goals?’, or ‘What are the consequences of not changing?’ will help people relate to the purpose of the change and start to build buy-in.

Change Tactic 5: Once the change messaging is finalized, it’s time to determine your communication channels. (Forbes, Leading Through Change, Josh Schoeller, March 17, 2021)

  • The Communication Planning Conversation (page 126*) – to develop your communication strategy. This conversation helps you consider your audiences, different communication approaches for different personalities, and your key messages.

These change tactics are just a sample of the many out there. And for almost everyone you come across – ‘There’s a Conversation for That’!

How Can We Help?

At Action Impact Movement (AIM), we help people lead their teams and organizations through change with confidence, calmness, and candour. We engage in AIM Changing Conversations to develop an action plan to achieve successful change. We work with leaders and organizations undergoing change and start by reviewing and providing recommendations in four areas:

  1. The Change Instigator (The Leader) – the impact of their change leadership style, their approach, and their possible roadblocks.
  2. The Initiative – the purpose of the change and the compelling why, the goals, and the use of change management best practices.
  3. The Situation – the level of buy-in from leaders, competing priorities, and the change track record in the organization.
  4. The Impact – understanding what people need to do more, better, or different to realize results and equipping people managers with the skills and confidence to engage their teams in AIM Changing Conversations to guide them through change.

As Gary Hamel has been quoted saying, “The most profound business challenge we face today is how to build organizations that can change as fast as change itself.” AIM Changing Conversations are the secret to leading successful change, over and over, or as I say in the book – one more time with feeling!

*page numbers refer to the paperback version of Talking Change: Must-Have Conversations for Successful Leaders.