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Lessons in Implementing Change

Several times in my career I’ve been asked to implement change across an organization. Usually I’m hired into the role specifically to improve the organization’s ability to deliver. As I am being interviewed for the position, I ask these questions: “Why are you replacing the previous leader?”, “What are the top pain points as you see them in the organization?”, “What are the top three things you would like to see changed in the organization?” I do this, because in order to implement the right change, it is important to know what your boss, your peers, and your direct reports think needs to be changed.

One time a friend hired me into a role and told me before I started that the team I would be taking over was the worst team in the division. They didn’t make their dates and the quality of their work was poor. He also mentioned to me the best person on the team was leaving the group. My job was to turn it around. I asked if I could share his sentiment with the team, and he approved. So, on my first day, I scheduled a team meeting and told the team what my boss had said – this is the worst team in the division. I also told them I don’t work on the worst team in the division; I only work on the best team in the division. If anyone in the room doesn’t want to work on the best team, now is the time to let me know.

We then discussed what changes they thought we could, as a team, make immediately to improve our team’s results. After the meeting, I met with the high performer that was leaving and asked him to give me 1 month to turn things around. If he still felt like he needed to move on, I would personally help him find his next job. He didn’t leave, and he and I have now had a 15+ year working relationship. The team’s performance improved significantly over the next few months.

I’ve always known when coming into a new team, where the goal is to change the culture, to make sure the team knows early on who I am, what’s important to me, and what vision and goals I have for the team. There are some things I won’t compromise on. If we commit to a date … we hit the date. I don’t like not meeting my commitments. I won’t sacrifice quality. I want people who work in my organizations to tell me if they think I’m wrong. I don’t want people to do something just because the boss said to. Talk to me; let’s discuss it. Most of the time I’m going to let that person try it their way. If I really feel strongly, I’ll ask them to try it my way first and come back to me again if they still don’t see the results. It’s important when driving change to have two-way communication. People are more willing to buy in when they have a chance to impact how the change is going to occur.

Something else I usually do soon after coming on to the team is have an offsite to bring all the leaders together and create lists – What’s not working? What’s going well? What can we improve? What things are blocking progress? Usually, I use the first part of the meeting as a way for the team to blow off steam by sharing what’s not working. Then we focus on what changes are needed and how those changes will get things working better. I always end these offsites with a list of action items and owners. Then you can roll out a plan of action to the whole team.

Finally, I like to ask the leaders how we will measure the change. How do we know things got better? This is an important step. Without some way to show that things are improving, it’s hard to declare victory later. The team should also have goals related to these measurements, which could in turn be tied to morale events when these goals are met.

Each team is different. For me, the keys are having a vision, creating a plan, getting the team to buy into that plan, and measuring progress. Connecting with the individuals on your team and selling them on the team, the plan, and yourself leads to success. It’s always fun to implement change. When a team moves to improved delivery, there is a pride that comes with it. For me, helping the people get that feeling of accomplishment is how I have fun at work.

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