How To Lead Change By Looking At The Past

There is certainly no shortage of advice on what actions leaders should take to successfully implement change.

However, despite the plethora of guidance available, organizations generally have difficulty executing their “brave idea”. The desired change doesn’t see the light of day; the intended benefits aren’t realized; dysfunction and discontent are often left as the aftermath.

Traditional change management methodology has two fundamental flaws.

First, the premise of change management is based on the future. It focuses on what needs to be done differently in order to meet expected new environmental and competitive shifts.

The risk here is the implicit internal message that can be sent that somehow the past (and by implication the people who were there) is “bad”, and is responsible for the jeopardy leadership says the organization faces.

I’ve seen “warriors” in the organization steadfastly refuse to consider a change in direction because they felt betrayed; they were recognized and rewarded yesterday but today seem to be condemned for getting the company “into this mess”.

Second, change management is treated as an intellectual exercise; one that concentrates on people comprehending strategically what needs to be done given the forecasted threats and opportunities the organization is likely to encounter.

Accepting the need for change at the strategic level is easy; people “get it” because at this stage of the conversation the impact on individuals is rarely understood in detail.

Intellectualizing the need for change doesn’t mean people will jump on the bandwagon to support it.

What is needed is a bridge between understanding the change required and emotionally wanting to play an active role in helping the change get implemented; the trigger that compels the intellect to act.

That trigger is the organization’s history. It harbors the latent emotional energy for employees to be passionate about the change leadership says is required.

The past is the evidence that the organization is capable of adapting to a changing environment.

It provides demonstrated evidence that, in the face of formidable opposing forces, success can be achieved with people who WERE prepared to take on new challenges at the expense of their comfort zone.

The past can inspire people to believe a new future is possible; that people have the capacity to shift “the way they’ve always done things around here”.

It is crucial to honor past achievements and praise the people who delivered them if you expect them to now take on more change. A leader who incessantly reminds people that “the only constant is change” will only repel change agents, not attract them.

Honor the past; use it to usher in the future.

Use it as the right to ask people to take the journey and create another new future.

Then say goodbye.

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