6 steps to project leadership success

How to deliver what your organization will want to see with a new initiative.

By Jeff Shiver, People and Processes Inc.

With the speed of change being what it is today, you may find yourself tasked with spearheading a new initiative seemingly overnight. Most likely, your business will challenge you with a list of objectives to meet as part of this initiative, and as you get to work, your organization likely will be watching for indicators of future success. So will you succeed? Look no further than your existing culture for clues.

Culture is a grouping of self-sustaining patterns. Those patterns include how people feel, think, and behave and in what they believe. At its worst, culture can put the brakes on reliability and emotional commitment. Long-term success is jeopardized. When things have gone wrong, how many times have you heard, “But this is how we do it around here”? Culture determines how things get done. At its best, culture energizes people. They become engaged and emotionally committed. They feel good knowing how they are contributing to meeting the organization's priorities.

Don’t get caught up in thinking that you can change organizational culture swiftly. Rome wasn't built in a day, and neither was your culture. It is not like a piece of equipment; you can’t just swap it out. Those who try to promote swift culture change annoy people and destroy good intent. It's common to see banners go up on walls declaring the new ways. Yet under those same banners, people go about their work using the same old habits. Habits are slow to change. True culture change can take upward of 3–5 years.

Management does not have the patience for slow change, however. Organizations go bankrupt in less time. But in promoting swift change, managers fail to realize that old ways are self-renewing. Formal change efforts rarely get to the heart of what makes people tick – the motivators that drive them. Thus, change is not anchored. Often when some level of transition does occur, it's short-lived. Before long, people slide back to their old, comfortable ways. The employees see the initiative as a flash in the pan or a flavor of the month. Studies continue to show that 60% of organizations are reactive; that figure has not changed in more than 20 years despite all the efforts otherwise.

1.    To achieve success, work within your culture rather than trying to swap it for new. Typically, cultures are neither all bad nor all good. The first step is to understand your culture. As in any problem-solving process, you must be able to identify and define the traits likely to be a help or a hindrance.

2.    Culture is more a matter of doing than talking. Instead of focusing on swift change, focus on changing behaviors to drive culture transformation. Once behaviors are changed, hearts and minds will follow. Let those behavior changes become your wildly important goals (WIGs), and ideally, limit yourself to three WIGs. Changes to behaviors are tangible. We can act on them, repeat them, observe them, and measure them. A good way to start with behaviors is to relate them to empowerment. Translate these into simple, practical steps that people can take every day. Think about how you can enable people to make decisions in small groups or individually and act. Rather than pushing behaviors down, ask people to help develop new behaviors. It is much easier to buy in to something you helped design. Think ownership. Link the behaviors to business objectives and initiatives.

3.    Educate people by painting a vision not of a theoretical future state but of the behaviors you are trying to drive. Too often organizations neglect to teach people how to apply best-practice principles to change their behavior and fail to provide tools to help them change. In some cases, an on-site course might be required to provide personnel with enough detail to understand how to modify their behaviors. Make it easy for people to translate their behaviors into business objectives. Answer the “What’s in it for me?" question. For example, there are numerous organizations that perform basic work execution practices such as maintenance planning and scheduling. Training a single planner/scheduler will not transform an organization’s approach. Production and management philosophies can easily prevent the most basic planning and scheduling approaches from being implemented unless those groups are trained and achieve buy-in.

4.    Work hard to demonstrate business results quickly. You want to establish and retain continued management support. Determine which measures reflect the behavior change you are seeking. Measure them and share the numbers. Collect success stories. Be sure to reward teams, not heroes. Success begets more success.

5.    Don’t forget to leverage your informal leaders to drive changed behaviors. These are often your most collaborative people. These individuals often lack formal authority from a positional role and as such tend to be overlooked. They develop strong relationships across many functions, however. Because of this, they can facilitate the connection of people and behaviors. Call on some of these informal leaders, those who respond positively to what you're trying to do, to help implement and spread new behaviors.

6.    Audit frequently. To sustain a behavior, it must become habit. Sitting behind the desk is a dangerous place to watch the world pass by. You must get in the field, observe what is happening, and reinforce the behaviors you are trying to achieve. Now is not the time to be conflict-averse and to look the other way when you see old behaviors self-renewing. Other managers must also reinforce the desired new behaviors. Ensure that people feel good about demonstrating these new behaviors so that you can tap into their emotional commitment to keep effecting them.

Use of these six steps will allow you to transform the culture over time while still achieving your business objectives in shorter time frames. Focusing on behaviors makes that change much more actionable, as behaviors reflect doing. In doing this, you can tap into an incredibly powerful force: the emotions of your people to sustain change.

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