By Suzanne Bates, CEO

Senior management teams in public and private companies spend a lot of their time, energy and resources devising strategies that require change – in organizational design, policies, processes, and people – that is hard but necessary. 

Consider how this typically goes. Management accepts the strategic recommendations of consultants or their internal experts and announces there will be change.  Managers are then selected to lead projects.  Then, when these newly appointed change agents come forward with detailed plans, budgets and timelines, they’re met with puzzling resistance, even at the top.  It’s as if senior management has said, “Wait a minute, we didn’t say we’re ready to change yet!

Why does management sometimes pull back when action is required?  

When leaders tasked with the implementation of change come back to management, that’s the moment when the challenge crystalizes. This may cause some managers to pull back momentarily.  They feel the weight of the decisions and the complexity of it all.  They want to avoid disrupting business, distressing people or derailing the culture.   

When John Kotter wrote ten years ago about why transformation fails, he observed that companies who succeed at it understand that it’s a process.  Kotter’s eight steps to change begin with “establishing a sense of urgency,” which includes examining what’s happening in your market, understanding the competitive realities, identifying crisis, potential crisis and opportunities.

Interestingly, we’ve observed in our work with teams and leaders that they often skip this step.  Somewhere between the time when a decision is made and when it needs to be implemented, people can get cold feet.  Those leading the initiatives assume everyone has already agreed because they understood the urgency.  We have short memories.

One IT leader charged with a transformation project came back to the senior team within weeks of a decision with an ambitious plan that he assumed would win quick approval.  When his peers began poking holes in the implementation plan, he realized that they’d lost sight, or perhaps had never really believed how urgent it was.  Delaying project in his mind could mean losing customers and significant market share. Why were they balking now?

If you are a leader being tapped to drive a change initiative, you’re wise not to skip the step of clarifying and remind people of the urgency.  Along the way as you move a project forward, you need to remind people why they should pay attention now.  The first step is to think this through for yourself.  You may not be absolutely clear.  You also may need additional evidence.  Getting on top of the urgency question will help you get the money, people and resources you need. 

What are some steps to creating urgency?

  • The first step in getting clarity is to answer the question, “What is the problem I’m trying to solve?” There are problems within problems.  Your problem may not have been clearly defined yet.  You may need to make the business case for a particular initiative.    
  • Next, ask yourself the question, “Why now?” Things change quickly.  What seemed to be just important can suddenly become urgent almost overnight.  What was only a possibility can evolve into a crisis.  A good example comes from the retail industry, where consumer behaviors changed almost in a season, driving brick and mortar stores to begin urgently devising e-commerce strategies to respond to the modern buyer. The proactive leader gathers new data to demonstrate urgency even as the project unfolds, and anticipates the potential for change. 
  • Make an effective presentation. Be an outstanding communicator.  Know how to make a strong business case.  Have total command of the facts, be fluent with the language of the business, and prepare to have a dialogue.  Don’t skip the step of preparing excellent materials, including charts and graphs that instantly tell the story. 

To be a successful change agent you need to master the art of communicating with management and others why and why now.  Consider their views as you go, so you know how to speak to them persuasively.  Know what will motivate them to get behind you.  Never assume the case has been won.  People want change when it becomes evident that to do nothing is worse than moving forward with the plan.

Want to learn more about how to make a powerful, persuasive business case?  Click here to learn about our Speak Like a CEO Boot Camp.

Check out our article "Bridge the Gap from Strategy to Execution: Culture Change that Sticks" here.

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