Leading Change from the Middle

Middle seats may be confining, but being in the middle of your org chart doesn't have to be. You, too, can be a change catalyst.“…because the people who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world [or their association], are the ones who do.”

I don’t think Steve Jobs would mind my addition to his 1997 Think Different quote. After all, associations, and the people in them, do change the world. So maybe we're a little crazy?

In associations, people in the middle of the org chart are often the ones who are closest to a problem—and closest to coming up with a solution for it. But here’s what’s frustrating: you have a solution, and no authority. What do you do? Sit on your idea until you get a promotion? Tell your boss and then never hear about it again? Forget that. Try behaving like a leader and see what happens.

If you’re crazy enough to be a change agent, here’s how.

Leadership is not necessarily a position, a title, or a salary grade. Leadership is the impact you have on the people around you. You can lead change from the middle, but you need a plan. A good one.

That’s where Dr. John Kotter’s step-by-step process for leading change can help. You’ll notice many of the steps involve making a case. Your success in leading change depends upon your ability to persuade others to see the future as you do.

1. Create a sense of urgency.

To stir people out of complacency, you must present a compelling and urgent case for change that appeals both to their logic and emotions. Paint a picture of two possible futures for your association:

  • A continuation of what it’s like today with all the resulting negative implications and lost opportunities if no change is made.
  • And, a more appealing vision of what the future could hold if a change is made.

Use Kotter's 8-step process to lead change in your organization.

Describe the impact of both these futures on your organization, staff, and members—in plain English using examples they’ll relate to. Avoid technical jargon if you want to win hearts and minds!

Kotter recommends creating “a bold, aspirational opportunity statement that communicates the importance of acting immediately.” The force of tradition runs deep in associations—you may need a bold business case to replace that inertia with momentum. The more you can connect your future vision to the organization’s mission and goals, the better your chance of gaining traction.

2. Assemble your team.

Find your champions of change—Kotter calls them your “guiding coalition.” These people are curious, open-minded believers in progress—and usually the early adopters in the office. Seek colleagues who have spearheaded similar change projects and can act as advisors or mentors as you go through this experience.

You’ll also need an executive sponsor for your project—someone in a C-suite or senior staff position who might be willing to believe in you and your idea. Whose department is most closely affected by the problem you’re trying to solve? Who’s been involved in other forward-thinking projects?

The executive sponsor provides organizational perspective and a strategic viewpoint. They ensure your project won’t conflict with other initiatives. (Be careful to get the timing right, especially if staff have ‘change fatigue.’) They might even become your mentor.

The sponsor may grant you the actual authority you need to run with the project. Whether they do or not, the buck stops with them. They help secure financial and staff resources. They can identify people who need to be involved—people you might not have thought of. You’ll also need their support in case you run into any obstruction from stakeholders who aren’t willing to cooperate.

3. Create a vision for change.

Your idea must be aligned with your association’s strategic plan—or it won’t be worth anyone’s investment of time. Identify how your plan helps your association achieve its goals.

Develop a vision statement that clearly states why this change is necessary, how it helps fulfill your organization’s mission, and how it positively impacts staff and members. This vision must be easily understood by—and relevant to—the people potentially affected by your plan.

4. Communicate the vision.

Call on all your persuasion skills to share this vision with everyone on staff affected by this change. Get your champions involved in this effort too. Inspire and inform colleagues with stories. Stories put emotional hooks on logical ideas.

Find success stories from associations that have done something similar. Where do you find these examples?

  • Ask your vendors.
  • Ask consultants who work in that area.
  • Reach out to the association community on ASAE’s Collaborate or your state SAE’s online community.
  • Look to the corporate world—I find Harvard Business Review, for one, to be a good resource.

Don’t forget the power of WIIFM—what’s in it for me? Provide context for the change you seek, and others will be more likely to help you create it.

5. Remove obstacles.

Now we’re getting into serious change management territory. Identify any barriers—psychological, procedural, financial, cultural, and personal—that could hinder the progress and success of your plan.

For your plan to succeed, you need the buy-in of all stakeholders. They must be involved in the project from the start so they see the big picture and become more invested in the common good. You need their advice and knowledge about existing conditions and requirements for change.

Identify anyone who may resist change—because even if a process holds things up, there’s usually a person who’s invested in that process. Keep these people close. Consult them. Stroke their egos. Let them co-design the project with you. Yes, I know it’s your project, but if you want others to climb on board, you have to let go of the wheel and let them co-pilot.

Make plenty of time for listening—the key to successful change management and leadership! Learn why users are resistant to change and why they’re attached to the old way of doing things. You can’t overcome something you don’t understand.

Some people will take issue with you telling them they have to change the way they do things. Don’t take it personally. Transition is difficult. Everyone likes having control over their domain and no one likes feeling that they’re losing control.

Your own lack of knowledge could also be a barrier to success. If you find yourself in the project manager or change catalyst role, learn everything you can about project and change management. Get familiar with the requirements process so you get that part right—it’s where many projects go off the rails. There’s more to project management than you think! Be prepared and set yourself up for success.

As project manager, be prepared to work 50% more, at least. Will your boss allow you to set aside regular duties so you can work on this project? If not, how will you manage it?

Can you identify human resources to lead and contribute to the project? Are internal resources readily available or already tapped out? Does the budget allow you to bring in an experienced project manager or consultant to assist?

6. Celebrate small wins.

By now, you’re wondering what kind of person gets themselves into something like this. Have patience. Change takes time, and because it does, you need to keep yourself—and your colleagues—looking forward instead of back.

Keep momentum and enthusiasm going by celebrating small wins:

  • Count down a project with 99 bottles of beer on the wall to celebrate daily milestones. Cheers!Deadlines met.
  • Milestone tasks completed.
  • Bugs found (a good task for getting your nay-sayers involved).
  • Tests completed.
  • Months endured—look for any reason to reward participation and anticipate a future and final celebration!

Keep a stash of small prizes handy—like coffee, entertainment, or spa gift cards—to reward individual contributions. You’ll get a lot of leverage out of on-the-spot surprise rewards. You can do the same for teams—or create a visual countdown toward a goal. DelCor consultant Gretchen Steenstra once set up “99 bottles of beer on the wall” to count down to a project’s soft launch.

To continue the change management process, Kotter has two more steps: fine-tune the change and make it stick. No project like this is ever ‘done.’ Maybe you’ll celebrate major milestones, like launch day, but you’ll want to keep refining and communicating post-launch. You might even be inspired to continue transforming and leading change.

You now have a foundation for taking on more projects, when you’re ready: your organization’s strategy, your executive sponsor, and the allies you’ve made throughout this project. Plus, perhaps, some newfound respect for being a true change catalyst.

Change is a lot of work and can be overwhelming at times, even when you’re the one initiating change. But, by following a change management process and the example of others, you can make change easier on yourself and your colleagues. For additional inspiration, see what DelCor president Dave Coriale has to say about change in: The Secret to Managing Change with Project Management.

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