There is no such thing as a positive change or a negative change. All change is ultimately both good and bad, depending on your context and perspective. Even a new product rollout or policy initiative with no obvious downside will grate on the nerves of those stuck in the mud. How can we better lead change initiatives if working with people caught in the quicksand of complacency? Keep reading.
Take Two Tablets and...
Almost everyone resists edicts handed down from on high. The last time that was an effective strategy, Moses came down from a mountain with two very large chunks of stone. (In all candor, one could argue that the target audience for that message didn't do the best job of following His commandments.) Smart leaders leave big holes in their big strategies, places where front-line managers and top-shelf employees can insert their own good ideas. Don't assume that you lead an army of lemmings. Most people are just waiting for a chance to lead — if not overtly, then by example. Visionaries provide those opportunities, along with support structures that help their team take calculated risks.
Empowerment Is Not Enough
Empowerment is a great concept. Unfortunately, a lot of companies talk the empowerment talk but walk the micromanagement walk. The Baldridge Award-winning Ritz-Carlton hotel chain empowers (and even encourages) any employee at any of its properties to "fix" any guest problem on the spot. Employees are empowered to implement or create any customer satisfaction solution that will cost under $2,000. Ever stayed at a Ritz-Carlton? The commitment to customer service radiates from every employee.
Employee-led change initiatives require that level of empowerment — and then some. Letting your people know that have the power to "fix things" is one thing. Letting them know that they are empowered and encouraged to help tweak your company and develop new products, services and strategies is much more "empowerful." Mike Abrashoff created that kind of environment on board the U.S.S. Benfold and turned it from the worst ship in the Pacific Fleet into the winner of the prestigious Spokane Trophy, which is awarded to the ship with the best combat readiness in the fleet.
"I asked the people responsible for — or affected by — each department or program, 'Is there a better way to do things?'" Abrashoff says. Most of the time, there was. After you ask your employees for ideas on product, service or process improvement and develop a history of actually implementing them, you are on the right track. If you create an environment where your people can't imagine not contributing their ideas and sweat equity, you have created a team that doesn't need much — if any — coaching.
The Overburdened Boat Analogy
Companies, just like leaders, are all metaphorical boats of one sort or another. Some of us are fast attackers; others are aircraft carriers. I've even met some sloops and kayaks. Here's the key: A fast attacker will never convince an aircraft carrier that he or she can turn on a dime. Conversely, a three-masted schooner can't talk a whitewater raft into slowing down and waiting for the winds to change. "Secret Change Agents" learn to communicate with other boats on their level. Catch the wave. Push the throttle wide open. Batten down the hatches. Oh, yeah. I almost forgot. Mike Abrashoff is right. "It's your ship." In more ways than one.
The Importance of Packaging
Why do people buy name-brand cereal instead of store brands? I pondered this last night as I searched all over for the biggest possible box of those delicious "Berry Burst" Cheerios. (No store brands yet, but I'm hoping.) Take a look at the cereal aisle in your favorite grocery store. Look at the fronts of the name-brand boxes vs. the fronts of the store-brand boxes. There's a dramatic difference. Then look at the list of ingredients on the back. Not much difference.
How many times have you seen fundamental management concepts repackaged, renamed and recycled? Kaizen. TQM. "Just in Time." Lean. Six Sigma. Ad infinitum. Tom Peters, Steven Covey, Jim Collins, and even Dr. Phil have inspired (and made) millions by taking simple ideas and explaining them very, very well. Their ideas seem like common sense because they are. It's the articulate, yet simple explanations that resonate.
Why not give employee-inspired ideas the same level of packaging and support that you apply to rolling out your new vision/value statement or creating your annual report? Are any of these concepts radically different from Abrashoff's notions of grassroots leadership? Not really. Are they packaged a bit differently? You bet.
Anyone who has ever been involved in sales and marketing knows how important it is to identify and develop champions while working with prospective clients. But we often fail to use the same principles within our own organizations. The customer evangelism tenets developed by Ben McConnell and Jackie Huba can be applied internally to help develop early buy-in to employee-led change initiatives.
Execution Vs. Strategy
Execution will always be more important than strategy. Actions speak louder than words. A fair-to-middling strategy exceptionally executed will almost always yield better bottom-line results than a great strategy poorly executed. A great strategy never executed — and it happens a lot more than any of us would like to admit — is a lame exercise in futility.
Larry Bossidy and Ram Charan are right. So is John McKay. John McKay was the first coach of the Tampa Buccaneers. Like most expansion teams, the Bucs were terrible. Unlike the coaches of most expansion teams, John McKay had a track record as the highly successful coach of the USC Trojans. A sportswriter caught McKay right after a particularly ugly loss:
"Coach McKay... What do you think of your team's execution?"
"I'm in favor of it."
Just do it. Better yet, inspire others to Just Do It. The Brand Called Us is more than the sum total of many Brands Called You. The collective consciousness of an empowered, internally evangelizing, execution-focused organization is a force of nature, a strong tide that will raise all boats.
Mark Northern is a business development manager for Next Knowledge Software. He is based in Chattanooga, Tennessee.
A version of this article appeared in the November 2004 issue of Fast Company magazine.