Lessons Learned: The Power of Influence in Driving Change

Kent Lefner, Chief Transformation Officer

· Transformation,Change Management
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I recall in this story a small company I worked with that really helped me understand how important the ability to influence other people is when trying to drive an agenda of change. I share my experiences with two lessons learned: Mistaking responsibility for authority and using that authority outside of my normal servant leadership style.

Both of these impacted my ability to effectively influence my peers and drive the kind of change the company needed.

Changing a business is hard. Extracting business value is even harder. These points became incredibly clear when I worked with a small firm who saw itself as an industry game changer. I was tasked with maturing company processes and technology. I applied a proven framework (Transformation Readiness Framework) and within days could see issues related to virtually every aspect of company-wide project, process, and technology management.

Significant issues were observed and a maturity plan was formulated based on leading practices. My plan was solid. I had been a consultant for some of the globes largest and most success companies. Larger companies than this one usually pay a lot for the gold in plans like this. I began socializing my plan and there I encountered the ramifications of my first mistake:

It was my plan. It wasn’t our plan.

When my peers heard my plan, they asked questions and we discussed various points of interest to them. In the end, all of them voiced support for the plan. While it was obvious to me that they didn’t understand all of what I was trying to teach. But, they expressed commitment to making it happen. I was excited that I had imparted critical knowledge to my peers. Then, reality set in.

I quickly saw lower participation in key events than I wanted. I observed people telling me X about the project and telling others Y. Barriers were encountered and my peer leadership seemed unable to address these issues when I raised them. I would later learn that they were simply allowing the barriers to continue because they saw greater value from the speed that ad hoc delivery can create than from the maturity leading practices can create.

As the CEO of the company noted, my peers and their subordinates were giving my plan lip service without intention to fully support it. They would ultimately wind up supporting or adapting the pieces of the worlds most leading project management and change oriented practices they liked and abandoning those they didn’t. In other words, the power of the framework was being undermined because people didn’t really support the concepts that maturity required. This was extremely disheartening for a person whose job was to mature the organization.

There were three lessons I took from these observations:

  1. Listen with the intention of understanding, not with the intention of defending my ideas. I often listen for points I expect people to make and begin preparing response before they even finish speaking. That takes away from my ability to understand their views.
  2. Actively listen for areas of disagreement. I could hear or see subtle cues about how my counterpart is thinking and I interpreted them as misunderstanding and then convinced myself they just needed time to come around to my points. I thought they didn’t understand the points I was making so I stayed in teacher mode and didn’t pick up on the fact that they didn’t misunderstand but actually disagreed with me and didn’t have the ability to state their feelings clearly.
  3. Directly link project objectives / outcomes to performance management. Nothing helps people who disagree get on board together faster than shared performance metrics from common leadership holding them jointly accountable. In this company, the CEO favored speed and agility over quality and value. Each of those three factors were important but fast was preferred and anything that was perceived to slow down the path to value was resisted and usually not effectively applied across the organization.

My path to resolving these issues was to continue to extol the virtues of leading practices and to join my peers in adapting the processes to suit the needs of the business. That is my normal path anyway which leads me to my second mistake: Incorrectly interpreting my authority to drive change as authority to actually make change.

It was my job to change the company, to help it realize its game-changing vision. That’s why I was hired. It was expected that I could and would change the business. Had I learned the lessons above before joining the team, my second mistake could potentially have yielded greater results than it did:

I assumed that my job was TO change the company.

Seeing the resistance across the organization that I did, I set about creating a small group of people who could evangelize and extol the virtues of the the specific leading practices I was pushing (portfolio and project management, change management, business process reengineering, and similar methods). One particular leadership peer was responsible for our enterprise quality. It was her job to drive services delivery quality across the company. She was an early adopter of the leading practices I introduced to the company. She seemed to actively support my plans. I even set about to change ownership of the plan from just mine to ours.

But, even that didn’t get the job done.

It turned about that I hadn’t fully learned a critical lesson about change: It’s something people create together.

It wasn’t my job to change the company, it was my job to rally enough people who, together, would change the company.

What I saw instead was pockets of support and pockets of resistance. I believed that I could win the trust of people who supported my agenda and use value created over time or ultimately my authority to enforce support from those who didn’t yet trust me. When I began to push back on my peers for the performance of their subordinates is when the mistake became evident. Not only did my peers not support my concerns about their people, they told their people to continue operating as they were or once again gave me lip service about course correcting their people but but not actually following through.

The key lessons learned for me here are:

  1. Leading practices can’t stand on their own, they need support from people to enable mature forms of operation. It only took two people in the organization reporting to a peer of mine to create enough relatively quiet but critical noise over time to undermined all of my efforts to mature various parts of the company’s operations. I need to focus on winning the hearts and minds of my peer’s subordinates more than my peers themselves.
  2. Leading practices must be adapted so people will support them. In this case, because the company culture favored speed and agility over sustainable business value, it was essential that the methods the business would use would be adjusted to meet the unique needs of the people would who operate them to create value. I focused on holding firm to the value of leading practices as they were designed instead of picking the critical control elements and applying them with the mindset that they constitute a Minimum Viable Product of how our business would operate.