A lifetime ago, as an intern, I spent days building naive and earnest arguments against a request for an “Underground Conditions Allowance”. Essentially, a group of tunnel construction workers was requesting additional compensation for the damp and adverse conditions they endured in their daily work. While my arguments against this claim were based very much in fact and logic, the nearest I got to experiencing anything resembling underground conditions was in the parking garage located below the office.
My wise and experienced manager, a retired colonel from the British Army’s elite Black Watch Regiment, read my arguments, looked across his desk and asked, “Have you ever actually been there or experienced the conditions these people are working in”? And the truth is, I hadn’t. I had no idea what they were going through or what their day-to-day work looked or felt like.
And suddenly, just twenty-four hours later, I was on my first business trip 200 miles away in central New Zealand, visiting the Rangipo Hydroelectric Power Project to see first-hand the work environment, the tunnels, and the primary construction site which had generated this request for an “Underground Conditions Allowance”.
Before I left the safe and sanitized confines of the city and the Head Office, Colonel Trotter inspired me with two unforgettable snippets of advice. One was a prime directive — “Just get yourself there!” and the second, a piece of sage wisdom (and ultimately, the title of this article), “Reconnaissance is the best form of defense”. Not surprisingly, this has served me well in the many years since my introduction to managing divergent interests and points of view.
In the military world, home to the likes of Colonel Trotter, taking time to understand your opponent and their perspective, planning the offensive, allocating resources, having options and backup plans, and identifying the right leadership strategies are critical steps to success — and the same is true of organizational challenges.
The very notion of “organizational change” — or whatever nom de plume it assumes as times and theories change — strikes a chord for readers who have been party to workplace transformation efforts, either as advocates or antagonists. Most will say that the experience was loaded with improvement opportunities:
• more thoughtful planning
• greater understanding of the critical issues
• longer lead-time
• more developed organization design
• more resources
• better communications
• more consideration of the consequences
Not dissimilar to my example above, leading and implementing workplace transformation requires full immersion in both the environment and the experience before doing anything else – before doing anything at all. Thoughtful preparation and fact-checking, identifying and managing risks, engaging employees’ hearts and minds before leaping into change – these ‘reconnaissance’ activities promise a significantly greater likelihood of success and sustainability.
As executives develop their vision of the future, they often do so in isolation — spending sleepless nights, hours on treadmills, and long introspective commutes refining the ideas in their own mind. By the time they are ready to articulate their change plan, they have convinced themselves of its merits, rationalized its impacts, and are already anticipating the shiny new future. What they have failed to do, however, is immerse themselves in the organizational environment, gaining insight on the impact this future state will have.
Also, while these leaders have sprinted out of the gates, many in the organization are still warming up – unprepared for the pace set by their leaders, and unaware of the demands coming their way. A leader’s knowledge and understanding of what’s ahead needs to be translated and paced for those hearing about the proposed changes for the first time.
This means explaining the changes in terms people understand, appreciating the current mindset of the organization, allowing time to plan and implement new ways of doing things (and exit the old), as well as providing the resources, tools and empathy to help people succeed. Less haste, more speed.
Whatever the scope of change – short or long, simple or complex – teams need to be made ready for engagement, aware of the challenges and opportunities ahead, and trust that the people around them are supportive and moving in the same direction. There are several things you can do to ensure your team is battle ready:
• Know your organization: ‘Get yourself there’ and spend time at all levels and locations to understand the drivers and roadblocks to change
• Manage expectations: People scrambling just to keep their heads above water with their workloads, or who are in need of training to contribute as fully as possible are not prepared to cope with additional or new changes and challenges. Ensure they have the energy and knowledge to support your change initiatives
• Build and nurture trust: When the going gets tough, employees need to know you will support them, and encourage them to take risks and explore the unknown. The bravest soldiers in Colonel Trotter’s battalion were those who made decisions sure in the knowledge that their leader trusted them.
• Keep it simple: Don’t allow yourself to be ambushed or derailed by competing interests or complicated solutions. Employees embrace clear and credible instructions and so should you.
• Communicate your endgame: Share your vision with employees, as well as the route to achieving it. Be ready to re-route or regroup in order to get where you want to go. After all, reconnaissance is the best form of defense.
The most adept leaders, the ones most prepared for change, are ready to jog back to help the stragglers, cheer on the middle of the pack, and reward those who embrace the change early and are prepared for the next encounter. Leaders who take the time to plan the offensive, provide the training, communicate the strategy and understand the participants’ motivation will be richly rewarded.
And whatever happened to that claim for an Underground Allowance all those years ago? Yours truly sat down with the workers and their representatives, discussed the conditions of the tunnels, experiences of the employees, and what really was troubling them – they believed that no-one cared. Once we shared stories about the deep, stark drop in the elevator, the uncomfortable neon overalls, and the drip, drip, drip of condensation on hard hats, we actually identified a solution that didn’t involve paying more money — instead, shift teams were rotated more frequently, lighting was added in the tunnels, and elevator cables were oiled. By immersing in the environment, we learned that additional compensation wasn’t even part of the solution.
I’d love to continue the conversation, and hear more on how organizational change affects your world. Please feel free to reach out to me via email at email@example.com or connect to me on LinkedIn.
Jacinta Calverley | Consultant | TayganPoint Consulting Group | firstname.lastname@example.org