Giving Ideas Form

This is the second in a series of four articles on leading change.

Last month I wrote about the domain of vision and new ideas. Many of you wrote to discuss ideas that have inspired you as well as the frustrations of visions unrealized. A few think that my emphasis on the need to stay with vision so long is flawed and that only action matters. That group will be happy to know that we’re moving this month from the domain of vision and inspiration to the domain of physicality.

Leading in the physical domain is about moving from chaos, concepts and free- flowing ideas into the realm of action by giving ideas physical form. A well-developed vision allows planning to be the bridge from vision to physicality. But don’t look for a linear process. Think of it as a transition from spring to summer. The calendar may denote the official change of seasons, but weather goes at its own pace, and the change is gradual.

I’ve watched a number of excellent change leaders as they bring new projects to life. Perhaps most common in great change leadership is a passionate focus on the outcome desired and on creating a team and process that will stay true to that outcome, even when challenged.

The classic example of this is commonly found in changes that require technology. When an activity, such as installing and integrating software, expands to take up most of the time, attention and money allocated to the project, then the change process can be hijacked.

A project that begins with a charter to streamline sales processes, optimize distribution, manage inventory or even reorganize the company directory can quickly erode into a desperate sprint to just get the software installed and working. We saw billions of dollars lost that way by companies big and small that went naively into change projects without focusing sufficiently on the outcome.

The most effective way to ensure the project achieves the desired outcome is to plan across functions. Too often, planning starts with the software (or construction or logistics) team in a room building a Gantt chart detailing tasks and dependencies. Experienced change leaders know that you need all stakeholders in the room.

Thinking systemically about the desired change ensures that workstreams that may be smaller than the main construction crew will have a voice in the plan, not be fit in later as happens when planning is done in a vacuum. The call center project that doesn’t include the skill set needed to make it work after the new software is installed can have a very expensive outcome: The surgery is a success, but the patient dies.

In giving ideas form, success rates are vastly improved by planning from outcomes backward, as opposed to tasks forward. A cross-functional team can more effectively deconstruct an outcome into all its component parts so that planning can give the entire outcome form, not just the big, obvious – and usually expensive – part of the work plan.

Going into action when leading a change is comfortable for most of us. It is what we are trained to do, and for that reason, the physical domain work is generally the part of a project that uses the most time and budget – and gets the most attention.

That, in fact, may be the biggest risk to manage. It is easy, and unfortunately common, to assume that the actual building of a new process, system or structure is the whole project. But it is only one of four domains that leaders must engage to see a change through to completion. And its very existence is what evokes the emotional resistance to change we’ll discuss next month.

Originally published in Arkansas Business, Barry Goldberg On Leadership, February 1, 2010.