What If Our People Don’t Join Our Change?

Each presidential election year, I’m reminded of a saying from a fellow Cajun, James Carville. In 1992, as counselor to Bill Clinton’s teetering presidential campaign, he would constantly remind everyone on the team: “It’s the economy, stupid.”

Other candidates in that race had other issues. They spoke with gravity about much more esoteric topics. But Carville knew only one thing really mattered: The economy.

When it comes to organizational change, when you boil it all down, there’s also only one real pivot point: Our people.

Observers, consultants and academics will tell you that things like strategy and execution are the lynchpins of successful change. They’re wrong.

No doubt, we can’t have successful change without good strategy or execution, but I’ve found plenty of organizations that are great at strategy and execution, and yet they lose at change. They’re part of the two-thirds of organizations that fail or fall far short of their goals when they set out to change.

What do the one-third—the winners—have in common? Well, they have great strategy and execution capabilities. But they also are much more likely to have people who are primed for the change.

You see, if our people don’t change, there is no change. I’ll repeat: If our people don’t change, there is no change. All the king’s strategy and all the king’s execution can’t keep our change from running into a wall…and it can’t put our change back together again.

But our people can…and they do.

After studying change for 20+ years while also leading change at companies and divisions large and small, I can tell you firsthand that we minimize at our own risk the role of people in our success—everyday, and especially in times of change. I have the scars to prove it.

We thank our people. We tell them they’re central to our success. But when we’re planning a change, where are our people? Where are the folks who know the business better than we do? Are they in the meetings with us?

Often, they’re unaware. We hold onto the information until we have a baked plan. Then we foist the change onto our people. While they may smile and nod at our announcement, they can easily see it’s naïve. Our ideas are not grounded in our people’s  reality. And we wonder why they push back…why they don’t join the change.

So what should we do instead? Well, as I explained in a previous newsletter, we must listen first. We do this to get better, more realistic ideas, and—as we learn from psychology—when we listen, when our people feel heard, they’ll do remarkable things. When the leaders at Pixar – hoping for a 15 percent cut in unit costs—first asked their people for ideas, the most popular idea got them a 40 percent cost reduction. Remarkable.

So, if our people don’t change, there is no change. And, if they feel heard, our people will do remarkable things…they’ll go the distance, and further. Our people are the fulcrum.

There may be lots of other issues that other candidates (other leaders) may want to think about during a change. But there’s just one thing that we forget or minimize at our greatest peril. It’s our people, stupid.

As we plan our changes for 2021, let’s put our people at the forefront…the whole time.

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