Göran Carstedt, president of IKEA North America, summoned his top executives to a large meeting room to share his strategic plan. They arrived prepared for a flashy PowerPoint presentation complete with charts and graphs. Instead, Carstedt told them a story about a mother. He depicted a detailed scene of her and her husband getting two kids off to school in the morning. She gets up, makes coffee, wakes up the children, makes breakfast, and so on. Then he paused and moved to the heart of the matter: "Our strategic plan is to make that family’s life easier by providing them with convenient and affordable household items in an accessible location. Period."
Carstedt, in short, wanted IKEA to enter the scene, to populate it with IKEA-supplied usefulness that customers would appreciate having in their homes as they conducted their daily lives. He wanted his executives, in effect, to write IKEA into their customers’ story in a way that improved the story for the characters that populated it. Brilliant! As Carmen Nobel, senior editor at Harvard Business School Working Knowledge, notes, "IKEA has made very clear choices about who they will be and to whom they will matter, and why."
Clarity of purpose in any endeavor—from invading Afghanistan to marketing an MP3 player to orienting a global home-furnishing empire—avoids wasting resources such as time, money, effort, and communication. No surprise there. The same holds true for organizational change. If the desired change were to take hold, what would you see as you walked through a work area? What would you hear as the proverbial fly on the wall? Hover for a moment over the flow of information or product or service. How is the decision making on given matters unfolding? How does information move, and from where to where?
A change leader who hasn’t thought through these questions hasn’t prepared adequately to move to implementation—no matter how grand the change scheme, no matter how beautiful the flow charts or how heartfelt the calls for "enhanced communication," "a culture of safety," or "dedication to innovation." Absent a clear set of end behaviors on the horizon, a crew that starts rowing, perhaps even with vigor, but with little idea where they should head, will likely end up exhausted and disillusioned.
Change leaders need to focus on behavior, desired behaviors in particular. Easy to say. Intuitively obvious, perhaps. Yet doing so takes time and effort. Doing so also facilitates clearer focus and crisper implementation. The odds of success drop if you don’t know what success looks like.
There’s no best way to imagine the future. However you travel, bear two principles in mind. First, move far enough into the future to uncouple yourself from the major constraints of the moment. For executives, this usually means moving at least five years and perhaps 10 years out. For managers, two to four years might prove sufficient. Starting at a specific moment and working back to the present produces more creative thinking. Second, assume the world you desire has come to pass. This helps make the unreal more concrete and enables greater, easier specification of that world. With these principles taken as given, the process that follows should help you find the desired future and delineate the end behaviors needed to get there.
Just because change is difficult doesn’t mean it has to be timid. In fact, bold change initiatives can prove easier to pull off than incremental ones, because they force—or should force—change leaders to think systemwide, not just about processes but about the people who implement them. Successfully implementing widespread change requires successfully altering widespread patterns of behavior across large numbers of people reacting to a multitude of cues from the work world around them. Begin there.
What specifically are you trying to get your business to do? More local problem solving? A broader, deeper commitment to quality or safety? Ongoing refinement of production or delivery processes? Enhanced attention to product innovation? A dedication to customer service and intimacy? Regardless of whether the underlying push or pull comes from outside the organization or from within it, what’s the end purpose? If you can’t state it in one simple sentence, you’re not ready to imagine what it will look like if and when it’s achieved.
Which organization members will most contribute to realizing your intent? And don’t stop with the executive suites. The goal here is to think ground level, those proverbial trenches. Titles and job descriptions do not matter; function and behavior do. Salespeople switching their focus from volume to customer satisfaction may provide the most powerful insight into the required work system changes. Or perhaps envisioning housekeepers moving from pure maintenance activity to customer representatives will enable the most acute (and painful) analysis of the current work environment. Or receptionists migrating from check-in portals to point-of-contact client problem solvers.
It’s the future. Anything can come true.
Excerpted from Leading Successful Change: 8 Keys to Making Change Work, by Gregory P. Shea and Cassie A. Solomon, copyright 2013. Reprinted by permission of Wharton Digital Press.
[Image: Flickr user Peter Patau]