Leaders, Don’t Try This at Work

Why it’s a bad idea to solve “change” challenges without listening first.

People who are natural-born problem solvers get lauded for their abilities…pats on the back and promotions. They see opportunities where others don’t, and they don’t let problems get in their way. And once we’re at the top of an organization, everyone’s a natural problem solver.

But there’s one thing we should NOT try to solve: Anything that forces real change on our people. You see, as good as we are at solving problems, we stink at solving “change.” We’re so bad that our change efforts fail two-thirds of the time, wasting $2 Trillion (that’s trillion with a “T”) each year.

Instead of solving change-related problems ourselves (or, for that matter, deciding how we’ll take advantage of new opportunities that require change) and then handing these “great” ideas to our people, we need to listen to our people first. Sure, listening is messy, with moonbeam ideas, and people’s agendas showing through. But listening is good for two great reasons:

  • First, we have little idea what really goes on every day in our organizations. We don’t know the baton handoffs, the frictions worked out over the years, the interdisciplinary interdependencies. Our people do. So when we hand down the solution, it’s naïve. Our people may nod and smile and not tell us this, but we look like amateurs. By listening first, we get a more realistic and more executable solution set.
  • Second, people are naturally averse to change, but if we truly listen, and we truly want to incorporate the ideas of our people, our people will feel heard. And when people feel heard they’ll do extraordinary things.

Pixar learned this the easy way. They needed to cut costs about 15 percent. They could have decided how to do this by, say, handing out reduction targets.

Instead, they asked all their employees how to cut these costs. People got into it. They used an online tool to offer ideas, comment on the ideas and vote on the best ones. Then they shut down the studio for a day and used the voting process to determine which ideas would get discussed. Some ideas were so popular they needed two discussion sessions. But one idea needed seven sessions because so many people were galvanized by it.

What was the idea? Well, it wasn’t about getting a 15 percent cost reduction. Instead, it was a challenge put forward to get a 40 percent reduction. Pixar’s people were “in.” They felt heard. This became their challenge. They went big, hairy and audacious with it.

People will do extraordinary things if we go against our nature, don’t solve problems and decide how we’ll take advantage of opportunities involving change, and instead find the answers together with our people. So, please, don’t try to solve these problems on your own. People know better.

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