Leading Change to Uncertain Outcome

Sometimes, you have to take some risks. We are used to managing simple changes, like a change in benefits, or switching payroll providers, or even installing some great new HR technology. Those kinds of changes have a relatively clear destination. You can specifically say what will be different for each employee, and there is a fixed date when all those changes will be activated.

People ask a lot of questions, usually self-interested, so they can be prepared. They want to know how the change will affect them. Maybe there will be a new self-service form, or a new 800 number. It all may be pretty straightforward, but you prepare a change plan that assures the most worried employee will have their questions answered.

Bridge in Fog - taken with my iPhone 4 using Camera Awesome
Bridge in Fog – taken with my iPhone 4 using Camera Awesome

Then there are the changes that alter the way we actually do our work. Everyone has to adjust, but the end point is not so clearly defined. You can generalize it, but you can’t specifically answer every employee’s questions. These are the changes I love to get involved in. These are the changes that require that leaders step up and lead. Because if they don’t, opportunity is lost.

In a union shop I worked in 25 years ago, the company negotiated a change in contract language that would allow a supervisor to re-assign an employee to another job as long as they could perform the work safely.  The real advantage of this language was in filling vacancies when employees called in sick. We no longer were required to call someone from another shift in, on overtime. Unfortunately, supervisors were not effectively using this and the union ended up forging “the new normal”. Some gains were made, but not effectively offsetting the wage increase that was connected to the language. Opportunity lost.

HR can do much more than facilitate simple change. We know enough to provide support to changes that can have substantial business impact. But we have to step up and show that, we have to demonstrate we understate that not every answer is black and white, and we are ready to stick with a problem until the real value is mined. In my example, HR gave up to soon.

When you know that you have a directional change without a specific destination, be ready to stay the course for a potentially long road, and consider these points of advice:

  • Make the vision as clear as possible, at least for the near term. And then revisit the vision as you move forward to the next clearing. Lead, dammit.
  • Listen to the nay-sayers, but fuel the ones that start to get the gleam in their eye. That’s who you need for the heavy lifting.
  • Have good metrics. Are you making progress toward the vision? Not just the where, but to achieving the value? Again, in my example, the workers got the value when the contract was signed. That made resistance easy.
  • Celebrate progress. Acknowledge the brave, encourage the weary.
  • If you’ve lost the vision, don’t pretend. Own it, and get your peers together to get it back on track.

Simple, right? There’s something good beyond the fog, but if you wait for all the questions to be answered, someone else will have crossed the bridge twice. Get going.


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