How to Successfully Lead Change Efforts

ASQ has asked their Influential Voices to explore the question “How can an individual become a successful Change Leader?” I have participated with the program since 2012: see my past blog posts as part of the ASQ Influential Voices program.

In order to lead efforts to improve the management of an organization understanding how people will react to change is critical. For that reason I have written about change management often on this blog since I started publishing it in 2004.

In, Why Do People Fail to Adopt Better Management Methods?, I wrote:

It seems that if there were better ways to manage, people would adopt those methods. But this just isn’t the case; sometimes better methods will be adopted but often they won’t. People can be very attached to the way things have always been done. Or they can just be uncomfortable with the prospect of trying something new.

Leading change efforts requires paying attention to the existing conditions: the culture, the motivation to adopt this change and/or the motivation to resist it, the history of change where the change is being attempted and the reasons the change is desired (by at least you and hopefully others). And then you need to build a case for the change and manage the process.

photo of John Hunter

John Hunter, Frijoles Canyon, Bandelier National Monument, New Mexico, USA.

In some case it isn’t that complicated, there is interest in the change from a critical mass of people, the change isn’t that difficult, the advantages are obvious to many people and no one has a strong interest in resisting the change (that has the power to make adopting the change difficult). In that case you are lucky, but that is often not the case, even though many attempts to change are managed with the hope that no real effort will be needed to get the change adopted.

Those that successfully lead change efforts know when to invest the effort in getting the change adopted. They study (and often can sense) where the effort will need to be placed in this particular effort and plan ahead to support the adoption of the change and to avoid problems that can greatly set back the efforts to improve the existing system.

And they put effort into creating a culture that will make change efforts easier going forward. We need continual improvement of how we work and that requires continual change. We need to build systems that support that and coach people so they are comfortable with that.

I included some ideas on how to grow your circle of influence: which would be useful development strategies for someone seeking to become a successful change leader.

Communication is an Important Part of Any Change Effort

I believe the best way to communicate such changes is to explain how they tie into the long term vision of the organization. This requires that such a vision actually exists (which is often not the case). Then all strategies are communicated based on how they support and integrate with that vision. In addition that communication strategy incorporates an understanding about what weaknesses with past practices are addressed by this new strategy.

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Factfulness – The Importance of Critical Thinking

Factfulness by Hans Roling (of TED talks and Gapminder charts fame) is an exceptionally good book. It provides great insight into how to think more effectively and how to understand the reality of the world we live in (versus the large distortions so common in most people’s view of the world).

Today the people living in rich countries around the North Atlantic, who represent 11 percent of the world population, make up 60 percent of the Level 4* consumer market. Already by 2027, if incomes keep growing worldwide as they are doing now, then that figure will have shrunk to 50 percent. By 2040, 60 percent of Level 4 consumers will live outside the West.

book cover of Factfulness

One of the significant focuses of the book is the need for critical thinking.

constantly test you favorite ideas for weaknesses. Be humble about the extent of you expertise. Be curious about new information that doesn’t fit, and information from other fields. And rather than talking only to people who agree with you, or collecting examples that fit your ideas, see people who contradict you, disagree with you, and put forward ideas as a great resource for understanding the world.

I have come to see a willingness to value critical thinking, even when it means forcing the organization to address tough issues, as one the differences between organizations that succeed in applying management improvement methods and those that fail. In many organizations that fail, more weight given to making things easy for your bosses versus continual improvement in providing value to customers (which often requires challenging existing processes, beliefs and power structures in the organization).

Challenging the status quo is difficult and most organizations prefer to maintain a culture that takes an easier path. Management improvement often requires a willingness to encourage challenges to the status quo. The importance of challenging the status quo in your organization and in your own thinking is under appreciated.

An example of the systems thinking and economics views Hans shares in the book:

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Design the Management System with an Appreciation of Confirmation Bias

photo of John Hunter with a walking stick

John Hunter hiking at Fraser’s Hill, Malaysia, when I was a bit younger.

To create strong organizations we must create management systems using an appreciation of psychology. We must understand that people have tendencies that must be addressed by designing a management system built to take advantage of the strength those people bring and mitigate the risks the weaknesses (such as confirmation bias) that those people also bring.

One way to do this is to seek out voices in your organization that question and challenge accepted positions. Often organizations promote those that make things easiest for everyone, which correlates very well with supporting existing biases within the organization while making things difficult for those that challenge the existing thinking.

As I wrote previously in, How We Know What We Know:

the way people build up beliefs, is full of all sorts of systemic problems.
… [people] tend to think someone entertaining is more educational than someone not entertaining. They may be more entertaining, but taking the ideas of those who are entertaining and rejecting the ideas of people who are not is not a great strategy to build up a great system of knowledge.

To more effectively adopt good ideas and reject bad ideas, understanding the theory of knowledge (how we know what we know) and then applying that knowledge to how you learn is a better strategy. Learning to recognize confirmation bias and take steps to avoid it is one positive step. Learning to recognize when you accept ideas from those you like without critical judgment and reject ideas from those you find annoying and then learning to evaluate the ideas on the merits is another positive step…

I also wrote about these ideas in, The Importance of Critical Thinking and Challenging Assumptions:

Often we have created cultural norms that make it difficult for people to ask for evidence of claims. And the culture in many organizations can make those that seek evidence for claims as being difficult or even personally attacking those that support a certain course of action. However this is a dangerous attitude and it is directly counter to the fundamental aspects of management improvement efforts (evidence decision making, continual improvement, etc.).

Learning to challenge confirmation bias in your own thinking is hard. Often it is much harder to learn how to get the organization as a whole to change from one where confirming (and maybe ignoring anything that might make it difficult to maintain the existing belief) what most of us believe (or wish to be true) to one where challenging the assumptions underlying our thought process is appreciated.

Great benefits flow to organizations that encourage the challenging of beliefs, ideas and the lessons we draw from data. But such a culture can create friction in organizations without other strong management practices (respect for people, an understanding of what data does and does not reveal…). Often creating such a culture is something best left until the process of building the capability of the organization is well underway.

Related: The Illusion of UnderstandingManaging Our Way to Economic SuccessExperience Teaches Nothing Without TheoryThe Dangers of Forgetting the Proxy Nature of Data

My Willing Worker Award

Here is an image of the employee of the quarter award I received from Bill Scherkenbach.

award certificate - employee of the quarter

I took part in the Deming Red Bead Experiment and earned this award for my exceptional performance.

I have received other awards and I don’t think those awards were given with any more understanding of the contributions to results due to the management systems in those cases than was shown when giving me this award. Even knowing how little impact I could make on the results I was still happy to receive this award: psychology is not always (often? ever?) sensible.

Read some of the lessons from the Red Bead Experiment from my post on The W. Edwards Deming Institute blog:

Data very similar to that provided by the Red Bed Experiment is used everyday in businesses to reward and punish people. Data is used to blame those who fall short of expectations and reward those who have good numbers. In the Red Bead Experiment we know the numbers are not a sensible measure of value provided by the employee. But in our organizations we accept numbers that are just as unrelated to the value provided by the employe to rate and reward employees.

There is a powerful need to improve the numeracy (literacy with numbers) in our organizations. It isn’t a matter of complex math. The concepts are fairly simple…

Related: Guest Post by Bill Scherkenbach – Analysis Must be Implemented by People to Provide ValueRighter Performance AppraisalExperience Teaches Nothing Without Theory

20 Most Popular Posts on the Curious Cat Management Blog in 2018

These posts were the most popular posts on the Curious Cat Management Improvement Blog in 2018 (as measured by page views, as recorded by my analytics application).

photo of large river clearing in the Hoh Rainforest

Hoh River Trail, Hoh Rainforest, Olympic National Park by John Hunter


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Effective Change Management Strategies and Tactics

ASQ has asked their Influential Voices to respond to the question: What are some recommended strategies or tactics to help achieve successful change management? See my past blog posts as part of the ASQ Influential Voices program (I have participated since 2012).

I have explored the idea of how to create a culture that promotes effective change management in several previous posts on the Curious Cat Management Improvement Blog.

Change Management: Create a Culture Seeking Continual Improvement or Use Band-Aids?

You can try to push change in an ad hoc basis by adopting some strategies to create a similar feeling about the individual change effort. But that isn’t as effective as establishing them in the culture are. Strategies such as: going the gemba, pdsa, build trust via respect for people…

These tools and concepts build trust within the organization. The do that by showing people are respected and that the change effort isn’t just another in the long line of wasted effort for ineffectual change. The first part can be addressed, normally the second part can’t be addressed effectively. Often that is at the core of the issue with why the change effort isn’t working. It is a bad solutions. It hasn’t been tested on a small scale. It hasn’t been iterated numerous times to take a seed of an idea and grow it into a proven and effective change that will be successful. If it had been, many people would be clamoring for the improvement (not everyone, true, but enough people).

How To Create a Continual Improvement Culture

Very few organizations take nearly enough time to train and educate employees. If you want to create a culture of continual learning and improvement you almost certainly need to focus much more on education and learning than you are. Education can be formal but also focusing on learning as you apply quality tools is extremely useful and very overlooked. Coaching is a big part of doing this well, but coaching is another thing that is massively under-appreciated. Most supervisors and managers should be spending much more time coaching than they are.

photo of Van Gogh self portrait

Van Gogh self portrait photo by John Hunter, Musee d’Orsay, Paris.

This effort should be iterative. Create systems focused on continual improvement (which require changes that make a positive impact on results) with built in checks for frequent assessment, reflection and adjustment to the changes the organization attempts to make.

Building the capacity of the organization to successfully adopt improvements will directly aid change efforts and also will build confidence that efforts to change are worthwhile and not, as with so many organizations, just busy work. People will be skeptical if they have a good reason to be so, and poor management practices found in many organizations give people plenty of reason to be skeptical that their efforts to improve will be successful.

Why Do People Fail to Adopt Better Management Methods?
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Peter Scholtes on Teams and Viewing the Organization as a System

In this presentation Peter Scholtes provides an explanation of teams within the context of understanding an organization of a system:

We will not improve our ability to achieve our purpose by empowering people or holding people accountable. I know that those are fashionable words but what they have in common that I think is the wrong approach is that they still are focused on the people and not on the systems and processes. I’m sure that will trigger quite a bit of conversation and perhaps some questions.

He is right, though those are difficult old thoughts to break from for many. He does a good job of explaining how to seek better methods to achieve more success in this presentation and in the Leader’s Handbook. Following the links in the quote above will also provide more details on Peter’s thoughts.

Peter includes a description of the creation of the “organization chart” (which Peter calls “train wreck management”) that we are all familiar with today; it was created in the Whistler report on a Western Railroad accident in 1841.

Almost a direct quote from the Whistler report: “so when something goes wrong we know who was derelict in his duty.” The premise behind the traditional organizational chart is that systems are ok (if we indeed recognize that there are such things as systems) things are ok if everyone would do his or her job. The cause of problems is dereliction of duty.

Peter then provides an image of W. Edwards Deming’s organization as a system diagram which provides a different way to view organizations.

In the old way of viewing organizations you look for culprits, in this way of viewing the organization you look for inadequacies in the system. In the old way of viewing the organization when you ask “whom should we please” the answer is your boss. In this way of viewing an organization when you ask “whom should we please” the answer is our customers.

This is an absolutely great presentation: I highly recommend it (as I highly recommend Peter’s book: The Leader’s Handbook).

Without understanding a systems view of an organization you can’t understand whats at the heart of the quality movement and therefore everything else you do, management interventions, ways of relating to people, will reflect more likely the old philosophy rather than the new one.

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The Best Form of Fire Fighting is None at All

The best form of problem solving is to avoid problems altogether.

At the point you have a “fire” in your organizaiton you have to fight it. But it is better to create systems that avoid fires taking hold in the first place.*

This is a simple idea. Still many organizations would perform better if they took this simple idea to heart. Many organizations suffer from problems, not that they should solve better, but problems they should have avoided altogether.

Lake with Mountain in the Background

By John Hunter, see more of my trip to Rocky Mountain National Park.

A stronger management system based on continual improvement using experimentation based practices (PDSA etc.) while viewing the organization as a system should reduce the need for heroic action to fix problems.

Related: Add Constraints to Processes CarefullyRighter IncentivizationThe Edge-case ExcuseThe Trouble with Incentives: They WorkPracticing Mistake-Promoting Instead of Mistake-Proofing at Apple

* This idea is sensible for management systems and cities; for forests that have evolved complex ecosystems in which fires play a roll it may well not be a wise strategy (as the US Forest Service has learned).

Good Project Management Practices

I find myself working as a project manager, or a program management consultant more frequently in the last few years. As would be expected by those reading the Curious Cat Management Improvement blog, my project management views are based on the management improvement principles I have discussed here for over 20 years.

This post is in the style of my Good Process Improvement Practices and Practical Ways to Respect People posts.

Good project management practices include

  • Deliver a working solution quickly; add value as you have time. Don’t aim to deliver a final product by the deadline and risk missing the deadline. Deliver a good solution early, adjust based on feedback and add more as you have time.
  • Prioritize – do fewer things, and do them well.
  • Limit work in process (WIP) – finish tasks, avoid the problems created by splitting attention across numerous tasks.
  • Consider the long term from the start – build solutions that allow iteration and continual improvement. An initially very good solution that is difficult to adapt as desires change is not a good solution.
  • Grow the capability of the organization while making progress on projects.
  • Use data wisely (data can be extremely valuable and should be used much more, but it must be used with a critical eye).
  • Use retrospectives during the project and at the end of the project to continually improve the process of managing the project (and the capability of the organization to manage projects overall).
  • Practice respect for people
  • Coach people on good management improvement practices as those opportunities present themselves as the project moves forward. This will let them be more effective on the project and also build the capability of the organization for the long term. Don’t just “trust” people to succeed without giving them the proper training, coaching and authority.
  • Select the right people for the project – the decision makers and those working on the project need to include those most knowledgeable about end users for the what the project will deliver. Those involved also need to have the right knowledge, personality, skill and roles in the organization.

Tips

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Poorly Stratified Data Leads to Mistakes in Analysis

Getting organization to think of data as critical to making effective decisions is often a challenge. But the very next problem is that while data is used it is actually more misused than used.

How Not to be Wrong (book cover)

What is important is not just having numbers mentioned when decisions are being made. Or even having numbers mentioned when those decisions are evaluated after they have been implemented (or course many organizations don’t even evaluate the results of many changes they adopt, but that is a different problem). What is important for “evidence based decision making” is that what those numbers actually mean must be understood. It is easy to be mislead if you don’t think critically about what the numbers tell you and what they do not.

Poorly stratified data is one problem that leads to mistakes in analysis.

How ZIP codes nearly masked the lead problem in Flint

As I ran the addresses through a precise parcel-level geocoding process and visually inspected individual blood lead levels, I was immediately struck by the disparity in the spatial pattern. It was obvious Flint children had become far more likely than out-county children to experience elevated blood lead when compared to two years prior.

How had the state so blatantly and callously disregarded such information? To me – a geographer trained extensively in geographic information science, or computer mapping – the answer was obvious upon hearing their unit of analysis: the ZIP code.

Their ZIP code data included people who appeared to live in Flint and receive Flint water but actually didn’t, making the data much less accurate than it appeared [emphasis added].

This type of assumption about data leading to mistakes in analysis is common. The act of using data doesn’t provide benefits is the data isn’t used properly. The more I see of the misuse of data to more importance I place on the skill of thinking critically. We must challenge assumptions and challenge what the data we look at actually means.

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