Lead to Win: Change

May 23, 2016 | Lexy Thompson and Bill Gardner | HCI
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Revisiting unfortunate truth of leadership. 

In part one of our Lead to Win series, we discussed how leaders often unknowingly make the shift from playing to win, to playing not to lose. Typically, four important aspects of successful leadership are impacted: innovation, change, communication and sustainability. Last time we discussed how a scarcity mentality stunts authentic innovation, and essentially cripples an organization over time. Today, we will focus on how playing not to lose affects change. We’ll look at communication and sustainability in parts three and four.

Understanding your mental models.

Your experiences and your interpretation of those experiences slowly and subtly lead to beliefs and assumptions, or mental models, that then drive your behavior. 

Those mental models may be driving you to play not to lose instead of playing to win.  We will present some “playing not to lose” mental models, as well as their antithesis “playing to win”, mental models for your reflection in each of the four areas mentioned above.  

The impact of playing not to lose.

A Human Resources Team in a High Tech company found itself in a round of layoffs during which HR had to reduce budget by 30%. This reduction followed three previous smaller reductions, from which the HR group had not recovered headcount or many slashed initiatives.

Senior leadership decided to take a very positive attitude and use the messaging that the reduction was an “opportunity” to streamline processes and “right size” HR to be faster, flexible, and much more relevant for the larger organization.

This meant instead of requiring each HR function to cut 30%, the HR team would completely rethink and reorganize themselves, and the 30% reduction would happen because of new efficiencies and some attrition when some employees would opt out of new improved structure or their changed responsibilities. The HR Leaders team was enthusiastic and had a surge of energy that had been sapped by all the previous budget slashing. 

Working late one evening, one of the HR Leaders searched the HR SharePoint for a file she remembered having “HR Transformation” as part of the title. She found two PowerPoint files called “HR Transformation MMDDYY” with dates six and nine years before the current date.  The files revealed that twice before previous HR Leadership Teams (that included some of the current team members) had created a plan to transform HR in the exact way the current team was thinking.  When she presented to the rest of the Leadership Team, there was some collective memory of these previous efforts but a lack of memory about why neither reorganization had been fully implemented or maintained. 

Sustainable Change is Important. 

Either of the previous plans, if fully implemented, could have prevented many of the painful reductions and would have provided years of efficiency and lowered costs for the company. Much has been published about 70% of change/transformation efforts failing or falling short [Kotter in Harvard Business Review, 1995; Blanchard in Training Journal, 2010; Ashkenas in HBR, 2013]. These scholars have all pointed to the change process being ineffective, but we believe that the causality of mental models of tentative leaders has been missed.

Leaders who take transformative “play to win” plans and turn them into timid “play not to lose” implementation, condemn change efforts to fail.

  • When you set out to lead change efforts, do you understand your beliefs and assumptions about change before you start to plan? 
  • Have you ever examined your feelings when you realize that change is needed? 
  • Does the thought of change excite you or frighten you? 

Here are some beliefs, or mental models, about change that can cause you as a leader to unintentionally sabotage your successful leadership of change that is effectively implemented and sustainable:

Playing to Not Lose Mental Model

Playing to Win Reality

This change won’t require me as the leader to make any changes.

Leaders must embrace and embody the change.  Lead by example.

Change is not that complicated.

Change is extremely complicated because of the myriad of reactions people have to change.

People have to go through a grief process so resistance is normal and the grief stages define the entirety of emotions that will be involved.

Change is natural to human beings; we change things every day without grief resulting. (Exception is when layoffs cause the change, but the grief is about the lost relationships, not the change itself.)

The bulk of communication effort on my part as the leader will come in the beginning when we are crafting the change communication strategy.

Communication must be constant until the changes implemented are seen as the norm.

Once people start changing there will be no backsliding.

If communication and incentives to change fall off people will revert to what they are most comfortable with - the old way.

People who resist change just need more information.

There are as many reasons people resist change as there are people. It’s important that Leaders balance advocacy with inquiry especially in times of change implementation.

Once people understand WIIFM, they’ll stop resisting,

“What’s in it for me” is necessary but insufficient to address all resistance.

Simplifying the message is helpful, putting it on a “bumper-sticker” is a communications goal.

Reducing complex changes to a simplified message or slogan results in losing important communication facts and can result in the change being taken less seriously.

Outcomes are predictable.

The world of leaders is described as volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. Cause and effect are not always clear and often the same cause elicits different effects.

Planning is 50% or more of success.

Planning is a starting point and improvisation is required throughout implementation.

There are many good models for implementing change. Your mental models can render any change effort more or less effective and sustainable. The learning starts with understanding your mental models about innovation. 

Are you in it to win it or when it comes to change, are you playing it safe, low risk and not to lose?


 - Lexy Thomspon and Bill Gardner