Leading Change Is A Ground Game: How To Drive Innovation Toward The End Zone

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I was talking with a leader who was defining and implementing a strategic change for her organization. She was overwhelmed, under-resourced and getting more than enough oversight from her pressured seniors. The project plan was massive, and the forward movement was glacial.

I listened, and then, of all things, a football metaphor came out of my mouth.

“Leading change is a ground game.”

My colleague’s eyes lit up. The metaphor spoke to her (probably because her favorite team had just won a game after a losing streak). She could see at that moment what it’s going to take to make her change initiative succeed: She needs to replenish her own energy reserves, celebrate the small gains and prioritize anew each day — one drive at a time.

While a passing game is thrilling, the 45-yard completion with an end-zone happy dance doesn’t always happen for change leaders. Yes, there are many examples of rapid, disruptive change (i.e., e-commerce, internet of things, the sharing economy, etc.), but there’s always a behind-the-scenes ground game that accompanies innovation. Leaders must summon grit and persistence to shift focus and energy. Workforces must be upsized, downsized and reshaped to adapt to new imperatives.

Just as the team captain must rally the team out of self-defeat, change leaders must paint a compelling picture of the future so that people want to be part of it. But that’s not enough.

People also must find their way through a pile-up of emotions as they try to transition. David Rock and Linda J. Page, authors of Coaching with the Brain in Mind: Foundations for Practice, described five types of wins and losses (status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness) that can influence people emotionally during times of change. Below are my tips on how to navigate those losses:

1. Loss of perceived status in the organization. Whether you’ve lost your coveted parking spot or your title, a perceived loss of status can be a hit to one’s sense of identity.

What can a leader do? If a team member is feeling a sense of loss surrounding their status, acknowledge it. Reaffirm their value to the organization, to the business and to you. Give them ownership of something significant to them.

2. Loss of certainty. Transitions are periods of uncertainty. Teams are reshuffled, roles and responsibilities are unclear. Some roles become obsolete. People are let go. Self-protection drives our thinking and actions. We go into a wait-and-see mode.

What can a leader do? Provide a clear vision, road maps and project plans. Involve people in creating them.  Communicate constantly. Be clear about what is changing, what is not changing and how each person will be impacted. Ask people what they want to know, and give them straight answers. Tell them what you don’t know, and share information when you get it.

3. Loss of autonomy. Change brings with it new bosses, policies, procedures and authorities. People might lose the freedom to make decisions and take action without scrutiny or permission. Many people chafe in over-managed environments.

What can a leader do? Invite conversations. Ask people if they feel like they’ve lost the freedom to act. Listen for assumptions they are making about how the change is impacting their autonomy. People often have more power to act than they recognize. Be the advocate between your direct reports and your peers and seniors, and help the organization spell out boundaries and processes for actions and decision rights.

4. Loss of relatedness. Humans have a deeply wired need to belong to a social group. Relocations, reorganizations and downsizing can loosen and even sever the relationships that keep us connected to one another at work.

What can a leader do? Be sensitive to the emotional and social upheaval change creates. Acknowledge emotion. Describe how changes will impact relationships. Organize celebrations that give people a chance to honor their past work together. Recognize the contributions of people who are separating. Facilitate the formation of new relationships with introductions, social gatherings and virtual or in-person visits to people and offices your team will depend on for future success. Acknowledge that it takes energy and time to build trusted relationships again.

5. Loss of fairness. Mergers, acquisitions and reorganizations can engender a perception of unjust treatment. For example, how does new leadership treat the management team and workforce in a company they just acquired? Are some people “in” and other people “out” of the inner circle? Perceived inequity can cause anger, resentment, aggression or withdrawal.

What can a leader do? Help people constructively voice perceptions about inequities. Gather facts, and take note of information gaps. Advocate for peoples’ concerns. Cultivate trusted relationships with peer managers, and bring up equity issues with curiosity, openness and a shared commitment to addressing them. Revisit shared values. Do not trivialize emotions that accompany a perceived loss of fairness, as doing so can cause negativity to spread and people to take sides. Results could then suffer, and distrust might eat away at the organization.

Like the “wave” passes through a stadium of football fans, change inexorably ripples out through people.  Humans need time to deal with perceived and real losses before they can embrace new behaviors. It’s important that leaders of change never lose sight of that human factor. Balance strategies to achieve quick wins and easy yeses while planning and adapting, play by play, how you’ll usher a whole organization into a new reality.

Both my sons are playing high school football this year. I sit in the stands and watch them grind their way down the field. They’re playing that ground game, gaining (or even losing) a few yards on each drive, aiming for that first down so they can keep up the momentum. It takes tenacity, stamina, strength and commitment. They are exhausted when they get home, yet they play on.

Take heart, leaders of change. Drink your protein shakes. Look after your teammates. Put yourself in their cleats. And grind toward that end zone.

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