Why Energy Alone Won’t Move an Organization

Jan 15, 2019
Do you ever get the feeling that your team is only excited when you’re in the room, and that as soon as you leave, the energy fades away?

As leaders, we often see ourselves as the chief motivator (after all, how would you get others excited with something you’re not excited about?). But here’s the problem: if you’re always the only source of energy on the team, you risk having your team be dependent on this energy. 

What many fail to realize is that a leader—no matter how much energy they bring to the table—has to have the ability to project their vision into the organization in such a way that it takes hold and gains a life of its own. 

Being a leader means more than being able to change things. It’s about changing people. It’s about having a deep understanding of human beings and how to grow people who are adaptive in your talent pool. That is one of the most important traits a CIO should have.

A mental model for change

If you want to transform an organization, you can’t just walk in and demand it. You need to shift the culture and understand how people operate. And that requires having a mental model for changing behavior. Without one, you’re not going to reach half, or even a third, of your organization. 

Traditionally, change comes from the top, with management fixated on communicating the right information to influence the organization. The problem here is that people are merely the object of change and are reliant on their managers to take action. This is especially true for agile transformations where teams are expected to go to the work rather than the work coming to them. We often find people stuck in their old ways, asking their managers for direction.

For real change to happen, the locus of control must shift to the individuals. Only when they feel that they are in control of their own response to a changing environment will they seek opportunities to learn and adapt.   

People learn in different ways and they respond differently, too. When you introduce change, it’s normal to see three groups emerge: early adopters, fast followers, and the mainstream. About 20% of your organization will latch on early, another 30% will follow, and the other 50% will get it eventually.

The key is to focus on the early adopters. What can you do to get them to champion your initiatives? And what can you do to get the fast followers to understand and lean on the early adopters to increase momentum? Seek to understand why the laggards are not on board. Is your vision clear enough or is it just in their nature to resist change?

Sorting people into buckets won’t solve the problem, but it will give you the clarity and focus to get the ball rolling. 

Three components of effective change

As we've seen above, having energy alone is not enough to affect change. It takes much more than one person to change an organization. Plus, you have to get these three things right:

1. A clear vision
It’s not enough to paint a vivid picture of the future. To get people to own and lead the execution of your vision, you first need to help them understand the changes involved and how it impacts them—down to their day-to-day activities. You will also need to consider how you will operate differently as CIO to achieve this vision. Without this level of detail, there will be little focus and coordination and a lot of running around with good intentions.

Make an effort to communicate your vision through multiple channels as different people learn in different ways. For example, you could hold a town hall meeting, follow up with a newsletter, and then reinforce the narrative with concrete actions. I cannot stress action enough. People respond to actual changes in behavior from people they work with, so if the leadership team isn’t acting in line with the vision, everything can unravel pretty quickly. 

Ultimately, your vision should be clear, simple, and consistent. 

2. Change agents
Your next order of business is to identify, cultivate, and amplify the impact of your early adopters. These are generally individuals who are quick to learn, adapt, and share. And you’ll find them at all levels of the organization. Work with them to cultivate their perspective and vision.

In my experience, successful project teams pull subject matter experts (SMEs) onto the team to ensure the solution will meet the needs of the business. They are fully engaged, influential to the design, and know what they are talking about, so find ways to amplify their impact by giving them a voice. 

For those who are not early adopters, one effective way to spur change is to engage them in teams. In my experience, nothing changes opinion and behavior more effectively than putting people into teams and getting them to operate differently (while working together with change agents). You have to create a culture where people learn, practice, measure, and improve together. And you do that best in teams. 

Your leadership team should all be on board, too. If not, you will need to bring them in line with your vision and energy quickly. That might mean changing how they interact as a team or helping individuals improve one-on-one. Failing that, you may have to bring in interim leaders who understand what needs to be done and can lead in a turbulent time. 

It’s crucial that leaders provide practical support, not inspiration. It is not enough for you to get buy-in or boost confidence in leadership. Instead, arm your people with the knowledge and resources that will help them solve their problems. Prioritize coaching and support, connect them to the relevant experts and tools, and give them opportunities to learn or try new things.

At the end of the day, you have to be able to count on your subordinate leaders and change agents to project your intent. This means that they are aligned with your vision, can make it their own, and run with it. 

3. A governance structure to support change
To create lasting change, you will need to create a culture or structure for teams to effectively learn, practice, measure, and improve. Your first instinct may be to create a change council, but often they don’t work because it is not supported by structural changes in the organization. And you risk it becoming a place where people go and talk about what needs to change, but nothing happens. 

A more effective strategy would be to appoint change agents in teams and have them drive change from within. Make them your communication points and listening posts. Put in place formal mechanisms to capture and manage feedback that will help ensure people know how to raise an issue or concern in a way that they trust will result in appropriate consideration. This must include the possibility that an issue, if left unresolved, could result in the delay or even cancellation of a change. Otherwise, two things happen: (1) People don't trust that you are listening, (2) The solution may not actually work well for the business, leading to understandable and even appropriate resistance.

These formal mechanisms to capture feedback should extend beyond go-live as part of your continuous improvement process. Individuals should know how to get help, report an issue or request an enhancement. If they believe in the process, they can maintain a sense of ownership to ensure the solution stays relevant as the environment around them changes.

Then, perhaps most importantly, measure. It almost goes without saying, but if you don’t know what you’re measuring, then it’s hard to move the needle. Some may choose quality, some velocity; others may measure agility or a combination of these. But you need to keep your eyes on the measures of success and measure every team against the same core metrics in a very public way.

Connecting the dots

In summary, your challenge as a leader will be to connect the dots and define a vision that can be measured in simple terms. One that people can easily digest and are empowered to take ownership of. Again, when you put your people in the driver’s seat, it forces them to be change agents themselves. This will, in turn, activate and elevate the organization. 

When you understand what it means to drive change at a human level, you will be successful in the long term.

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