Managing Change? Go Small or Go Home
Are you the “change agent” on your team? If so, this post is for you.
In building and delivering LiquidPlanner to customers, we’ve learned that change agents play a key role in helping their organizations grow. Typically, it comes down to one person that makes the difference in the organization’s “project awesomeness” score. It’s the leader with the passion to say, “We could be better at this, so let’s set the status quo aside and try something new.”
A year ago, Alison wrote a great post for change agents which is still fresh and useful. I’m going to add to her solid advice with one really useful tactical maneuver:
Use Small Projects When Changing Processes.
I’ve been the change agent, the secret agent, and sometimes the double agent of process initiatives. What I’ve concluded is that this simple tactic delivers. It may feel counterintuitive, but it works.
This is common wisdom; a solid series of base hits is better than a few home runs. This is crucial early on when people are just starting to understand why processes are being changed at work. Little projects are easier to do and are more likely to let your new ideas shine. We also have to face the fact that many of your co-workers may think change is for tip jars, not for them.
This key goal here is seeing that it’s all about teaching and learning in a practical way, not about shoving new ideas into people heads. Imagine if you had to learn Karate in a day. You can’t cram something like that in. Short and frequent training is the way to go. You have to take the time to learn each new part without being overwhelmed by the whole thing. New processes are no different. You can’t dump a bunch of new methods on people and expect them to embrace them right away. Start small and build.
But why teach with a project? Because projects are about doing. You’ll bore people to death with slide decks on change theory! Nothing beats trying new methods out in incremental steps. Ideas don’t stick as well when we just talk about them; we need action to really bring them home.
One might be tempted to make up simulated work or contrived examples. I’d advise against that. Real projects, even small ones, have real business value, and getting them done gives everyone a way to reflect on what it took to get the goodies. More to the point, you can count the win.
Project wins are the social currency of change management. The change game favors small projects because people are more likely to remember wins and losses versus the size and complexity of the projects. And by accumulating project wins, you can:
- Build advocates: If you never get to the end of a book, you’re not very likely to recommend that book to anyone else, are you? Get more people to the completion of your project so they can recommend your new idea. Your goal should be to maximize the rate of people having a good experience with new processes. Shorter projects mean quicker finishes and more results with less investment; a shorter project is also harder to derail.
- Reinforce good habits: If you have not read The Power of Habit, then you might want to put it on your reading list. If you read the book, you’ll see that a shorter project is going to make a short habit loop, which in turn makes it easier to connect the original objectives with the reward (a project win). Rewards are critical to establishing good habits.
- Offset losses: Nobody says your change initiative is going to work the first time, second time, or third. When you are trying new things, you have to imagine it as an experimentation. You are better off with a series of shorter experiments that build on each other than one big experiment. Big projects tend to have their own special challenges like crises of confidence, getting raided for resources, or getting de-prioritized based on ever changing business priorities. Short matches are rarely called off because of weather, if you catch my drift.
To wrap it up: Think of your change initiative as helping your organization see a new story about how work can get done. Your story needs to be a quick read with a beginning, middle, and end. You want people talking about it in a positive way afterwards and looking forward to the sequel. With luck, you’ll have people lined up around the block, wanting to work on one of your “new concept projects.” Why? Because they want that project win just as badly as you do.