Perceptions First, Then Plans

One of my favorite quotations about change comes from Antoine St. Exupery, who said, “If you want to build a ship, don’t gather workers to collect wood or assign them tasks. Instead teach them to long for the vast and endless sea.” Helping people to see and embrace a new reality is one of the most measurably important things a leader can do as part of a change project. Trying to push change by managing detailed tasks and milestones is like swimming against a tide. You can do it, but only for so long, and the moment you stop, you risk losing progress you have made. If instead you can begin to create a tide of people who share the vision, then tasks begin to order themselves. The process may not be neat and tidy and will doubtless require some organization along the way. Effective change leaders see a much greater result with much less effort and expense by helping their organizations to adopt the mental and emotional changes first.

A few years ago I spoke on a conference panel in Warsaw with the man who was leading the process of redesigning the banking system in Poland. His task was to redesign a legacy of their communist economy and refit it for his country’s entry into the European Union. When asked what he thought he needed most to be successful, he thought for a moment and said, “I know why Moses wandered for 40 years in the desert. He was not lost! He needed the slaves to die. He needed people who understood freedom and initiative to begin a country.” That same condition applies to leading change in our own organizations. While new processes and ways of working need clear and purposeful design, the thing that will most determine whether a change program is successful or dies a painful and expensive death is the ability of a leader to enroll people in the vision and see it as reality.

We are not talking “pie in the sky” dreams here. Jean Lipman-Blumen writes in this quarter’s Leader to Leader Journal about toxic leadership that is marked by “promises of easy security and false certainty which shield us from reality and lead us astray.” Generally, the litmus test for vision has to do with an understanding of how much hard work will be needed even after the new mindset is adopted. I am not arguing for denying the importance of linear processes in change management. However, I often see the seeds of failure in asking linear task management to substitute for a purposeful approach that gives employees, partners and associates a solid, personal “what’s in it for me” motivation.

Attitude makes all the difference even in the most command-and-control of environments. Ask senior officers who have served in the military long enough to remember enlisted ranks driven by a draft about the quality and effectiveness of troops during that period. It may be more complicated and challenging to get the number and quality of enlisted personnel that officers need today, but the working environment and capability of today’s troops are significantly improved over those of troops whose participation was forced by the draft.

If you are considering a major change, start with running the idea out as a concept to see what the reaction is in the organization. Find out if there is interest that can be developed into real enthusiasm for the outcome before you introduce plans for a completed project or a decision al-ready made. Leaders need followers, and followers only go where they do not want to under threat — and then not with their best efforts, attitudes or capabilities.

Originally published in Arkansas Business, Barry Goldberg On Leadership, May 16, 2005.