I found myself furrowing my brow and scratching my head while talking to a client the other day. Dumbfounded by the direction of the conversation, I was thinking, “What is he thinking? Approaching the solution that way will only perpetuate the problem we are trying to solve!”
Then I realized this: Clients don’t hire consultants when things are going smoothly. Clients hire consultants when they need help. Duh! Immediately, my mind shifted to “What am I thinking? How could I expect him to know and understand how to get out of this kerfuffle? That’s why he hired me!”
I felt like an idiot. I had taken for granted that my client and I were on the same page. It seemed like we discussed all the important topics before I was officially hired: the nature of his challenge, what they had done and tried, what they were hoping to do, how I could help them, a preliminary work plan, and more. But we never talked about our assumptions – our values and beliefs – that underlie how we each approach our work.
Of course! That was why I was so uncomfortable! My client’s way of approaching the change in his organization conflicted with my core beliefs.
I named my consulting company The Change Collaborative because I am interested in working with people who want to practice participatory, inclusive change management. To me it is a very simple proposition: people support what they help create. So the question for change management leaders becomes, how do we engage people in the process in a meaningful way?
My client, however, believed that change happens when it is led and controlled by a very strong leader with little involvement from others. The leader’s role is to set the vision and direction, and enlist others to enroll. Certainly that is one model of leadership. However, my experience tells me that organizations that take this approach for complex change rarely get past “telling and selling.” They miss opportunities to truly obtain commitment and buy-in. On the other hand, when people co-create their future together, they produce an extra burst of energy that propels them through the hard work of change. That is because they see the prospect of something better on the other side, and they are motivated to make it a reality.
The next time I meet with a new client or consider a new project, I will ask the following questions to begin to surface these assumptions:
- What has worked for you and for your organization in the past when launching and implementing change?
- How would you describe your current culture? How does that compare to the culture you are trying to build?
- What ideas do you have for the change process we use? How should the process reflect your current/desired culture?
- With this project, what would people expect their roles to be? What would you want their roles to be?
- How important is it to you that we create an open, participatory, inclusive process for the change?
- What is the leadership style of your executives? How do you think they will respond to the change process we are proposing?
- What values, traditions, and norms from your organization must we adhere to make sure that our change process is successful?
Our assumptions, values and beliefs are so core to who we are that we sometimes forget that they aren’t readily available and accessible to the people we work with. We need to find ways to surface them, talk about them, and decide whether they are compatible with others. I look forward to the next time I am working with a new client, as the dialogue that results from these questions should get us on even footing earlier in the project and change process.