Last week, I was in a conversation with a friend and we got talking about some changes going on in her organisation. After she’d described some of the background, she went on to talk about a specific workshop she’d been involved with and said something that surprised me. “The manager is being expected to implement these changes, but doesn’t really understand why they’re necessary.”

I was completely taken aback. All my years of working with improvement programmes has shown me how important it is for people to understand why changes are being made. How could the senior leadership of the organisation think they could expect this manager to successfully lead the changes in her area without understanding the reasons for them? I have absolutely no doubt that this manager was committed; everything my friend said indicated that the manager had grasped the challenge and was doing the best she could to make the changes happen. I found myself wondering how easy it would be for her to keep motivated, make the right decisions and so on without that fundamental understanding. The best she’ll achieve – no matter how committed she is – is some sort of compliance with the request she’s been given as, without the “why”, it is almost impossible to really engage with what the organisation is trying to achieve.

Yet, why was I really surprised? This type of behaviour is not uncommon. One thing I see time and time again is that a small group will take time out to really work through an improvement opportunity. They’ll do some great baseline analysis, gather evidence and data and really understand the root causes of some of their current issues. They’ll have a clear vision of how they would like things to be in future – can almost imagine themselves there already. They’ve developed a great plan to close the gap, with all of the steps clearly defined with SMART actions. All they have to do is get others involved.

And then what happens? They gather all of the people together and, essentially, say “this is what we’re going to do.” I’ve seen it, even been part of it, so many times. And I ask you, how engaged would you be if an excited team came back and – more or less – started giving you a list of things to do? I mean, really??!!

I’m reminded of the words of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the French writer, poet, and pioneering aviator, who said:

“If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders.  Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”

In essence, what he’s saying is; don’t start by getting your team together and giving them a list of things to do! You need to engage them with the ‘why’!

It seems that’s what had happened to the senior leadership of my friend’s organisation. They’d done all of the work, been absolutely clear in their own minds about the changes necessary. They’d even ensured that a change management toolkit had been developed and provided with training to go with it. “We’ve got everything in place,” they’d thought, “now all we have to do is get on with it and let people know what’s happening and what they need to do.” And they had; they’d done a great job of the “what”, even looked at the “how”, just not the “why”.

So how do you avoid falling into the same trap? In many ways, it’s really simple; just share the story of your planning journey with them. Explain the opportunity and why it matters, identify the benefits, show them the evidence. Paint a picture of the future – take them there with you as you share your passion and excitement for what this improvement will bring. Then – and only then – unpack your plan for how you’re going to get there and what support you need from them. If they understand the “why” they’re far more likely to engage.

Take them on a journey into the future.

Involve as many as possible in the diagnostic, analysis and planning process. Research shows that there is far less resistance when people are involved in planning for change than when it is imposed on them. If that’s not practical, at least share your thinking in “draft” form, by which I mean explain it’s a work in progress and you’re open to their questions and ideas. People are generally far more willing to contribute to a “draft” than to be seen to criticise a “finished product”. They start to feel that they are part of what’s going on rather than just being “dumped on” and that their knowledge, experience and ideas are valued.

This simple step of unpacking the “why” can make a huge difference. Review past improvements you’ve been trying to make and ask yourself if this step has been missed and what can you do about it?

Of course, sometimes that’s not enough. You get the sense that people “get it” and understand your “why”, but it still hasn’t really translated into action. It seems like the message has reached their heads but not their hearts; they’re convinced but not yet committed. I explain how to gain commitment in Part 2. Email me now if you’d like an advanced copy.

Harvey Leach is Principal Consultant with The Consultancy Company. With over 30 years’ experience of leading improvement in industry and as a consultant, he works with clients in both the private and public sectors to help them do things better, faster and at lower cost. By employing simple but effective structures and tools, staff at all levels are engaged in improvement activities that deliver sustainable results that bring real benefit to the organisation.

If you have a challenge implementing your improvement ideas, please get in touch with Harvey via ku.oc1502903325.ycna1502903325tlusn1502903325oc-eh1502903325t@hca1502903325el.ye1502903325vrah1502903325 to arrange a chat to see how we can help.

If you’ve found this blog interesting/useful, please ‘like’ or ‘share’ on your favourite social media channel so it can help others too. This blog is part of a series on creating the right environment for engaging employees in making effective and sustainable improvements in your business that will make a real difference. This blog is the first of a new series looking at specific challenges with implementing effective and sustainable improvement. To view our original series on creating the right environment for improvement, click on the links below.

Overview: How do leaders create the right climate for successful continuous improvement?

Vision: Why won’t people engage with improvement plans?

Values and beliefs: How do our beliefs about others affect the way we work with them?

Values and beliefs: What beliefs are essential to improving performance?

Capabilities and behaviours: What capabilities do you need to turn beliefs into effective action?

Behaviours: Are you afraid to let others make mistakes?

Behaviours: Is your attitude to failure putting your business at risk?

Behaviours: Do Deadlines Matter?

For a broader look at whether your organisation is creating the right climate for everyone to work on how to do things better, faster or cheaper, click here to download a “self-audit” that gives you a full range of statements to consider.

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