2.5 Unfinished Business
EGL Newsletter Volume 2.5
Often the first step of a change project is to provide completion from the last change. That actually sounds a bit odd at times, but we have found this repeatedly when organizations approach a change project. It is not necessarily that the last change did not get fully implemented, but more that the emotional impact of the change did not get fully processed. So now, the initial reactions from the organization to the new change are left over from their last experience of change. The last big implementation, reorganization, or initiative is still occupying space in their consciousness. This unfinished business takes up energy and creative space. It keeps people from being able to engage in the issues of today, and it often creates negativity in the organization.
Sometimes this unfinished business is treated as resistance and organizations try to force it to stop. This approach usually only makes matters worse. The issues hold energy because they are unfinished, so repressing them only makes the feelings stronger. We take unfinished business of this sort head on and work to transform that energy into a positive force for the future. Here are some ways you can do this.
First, make sure you’re not doing the same things again. Before you move on your new project, make absolutely sure you are not doing things exactly the same way as last time. Remember the old definition of insanity, that is, to continue to do the same things but expect different results. Take time to understand lessons learned from the last change. Talk to people who were involved. Understand what they would have done differently. Get clear about the values you want to exhibit through your current approach. Most of all, understand how you plan to impact the organization and be prepared to describe it. At the same time, understand how that is the same as or different from previous approaches. There is enormous power in getting clear about the basis for your change approach, the belief set it embodies, and the assumptions it makes about people. Use this time to learn about your approach and plan for a profoundly positive future.
Communicate what you’ve learned from the past. This is a very simple but powerful step. As you understand what happened in the last change project and what you are going to do differently, communicate those learnings and intentions. Post the learnings on your web site, broadcast them in emails, and hold meetings with people who most need to hear. Sometimes organizations are hesitant to take this step for a number of reasons. This can be a concern for bringing up the past or even for fear of looking bad. Whatever the concern, it is far better to deal with it now and be as open as possible about what is being learned. One significant note here. This is a time for taking responsibility for the future by dealing frankly with the issues from the past. I have seen communications like this blame the negative impacts in the past on former management, policies, consultants, or organization structures. My advice – don’t do it! Just say what happened, what you learned, and what you are going to do in the future.
Engage impacted people in dialogue about the differences from the very beginning. Beyond the level of simple communications, begin to meet with selected groups of stakeholders who are knowledgeable about the past and are vested in the future state. Create dialogue sessions based on your learnings and your intentions for the future. Use this time to deepend and expand your learnings. At the same time, this begins to get a group of stakeholders committed and engaged. Remember, you are already starting your implementation by doing this. This is one of the fundamentals of our change practice. When you first begin talking to people about change, you are already starting implementation. This is a really important concept to take into these meetings.
Listen to what people are saying. Empathize. As you create these dialogues, be very sure that you spend adequate time really truly listening. If necessary, go out and brush up on your skills before hand. Sometimes change agents in this role feel like lightening rods for things from the past. Remember, this is about the past, so keep defensiveness out of the picture and understand what people have experienced. This is when the energy associated with unfinished business begins to soften, allowing it to moving into a more productive shape.
Anchor all dialogues in the future. The second component of the dialogue session is the focus on the future. This requires a delicate balance of content focus. The idea here is that you create an anchor in the future. The concepts of where you are going are repeated and reinforced. So you have to spend enough time talking about this to create an adequate picture. The balance is to not be overbearing about the future to the point of not listening about the past. These early dialogues require that a significant amount of time be devoted to listening, empathizing, and then reframing for the future. This begins to shift over time, with an increasing focus on the future in later meetings.
Plan the early stages as two concurrent paths. Look at your stakeholder population through both the lens of how they are impacted by the future state and how they were impacted by the past. Plan a pathway for each scenario, using the items listed above. The highest impact group is sometimes the group that has been impacted in the past and has the highest impact in the future state, but not always. You never really know which groups will have the greatest amount of unfinished business until you begin engaging them, even the ones who were not directly impacted by the last change. Sometimes groups who were not directly involved in a change have more unfinished business that groups that were. Organizations are connected and there are secondary impacts of change. These groups often get overlooked. So, keep each path flexible and adjust as you learn more through engagement.
To enable rapid change,sometimes you have to go backwards first. Remember that all people engage the past, the present, and the future, but they don’t all do it in the same proportions. Leading a change requires anchoring in the future while honoring and often healing the past. If you take the time to work through issues of the past, you will create trust for the future. People will be far more likely to listen and engage the future when they have been able to let go of the past. Change practitioners are often hesitant to take the time to engage this important step. But what seems like moving backwards will usually rocket the organization forward. Remember, sometimes you have to go slow in order to go fast.