"Hey, we've got a problem here." The message from the Apollo 13 spacecraft to Houston ground controllers at 10:08 p.m. EDT on April 13, 1970 initiated an investigation to determine the cause of an oxygen tank failure that aborted the Apollo 13 mission.
Alias: “Houston, we have a problem.”
To encourage people to pay attention to your idea, point out the issue that you believe has created a pressing need for change.
You are an Evangelist or Dedicated Champion who has identified a problem and sees a need for change.
People in your organization seem to be comfortable with the status quo. They don’t see the need to change the current state of things.
When you talk about your idea, you are proposing a solution to a problem. But if no one is aware of the difficult situation, it’s likely that your idea is viewed as merely an interesting possibility rather than something urgent that requires action. As a result, your proposal is met with complacency, pessimism, defiance, or everyone simply ignores you.
We are creatures of habit. When we are in a routine and are satisfied with the way things are, we’re not likely to see an impending threat. You will need to help others understand that the world has changed and that they must change too. It can be difficult to face this reality. We can feel overwhelmed and hopeless when facing a challenge—yet, most of us want to make things right. Therefore, we are more likely to take action if we feel a certain amount of tension brought about by, for example, a need to eliminate a potential risk, a desire for safety and comfort, or a wish to fulfill a goal. If you can create this tension, people are likely to seek a resolution.
An upbeat style of leadership encourages optimism, but when it becomes excessive, it distorts reality. Individuals will believe everything is going well. They will stop asking questions and avoid considering feedback that could lead to improvement. This “excessive optimism” or “irrational exuberance” can make an organization ill-equipped to deal with inevitable setbacks. You need to be courageous enough to bring potential problems to light and encourage periodic critical reflection in areas that are not doing well.
According to John Kotter, the first step in real change is to “get the urgency up.” He explains that showing people a compelling need for change will energize them to make something happen—it will get them “off the couch, out of the bunker, and ready to move.”
In Weird Ideas that Work, author Bob Sutton points to research on social movements, showing that the hallmark of scalable ideas is for leaders to first create "hot" emotions to fire up attention and motivation and then provide "cool" rational solutions for people to implement.
Thomas Friedman, author of The World is Flat reminds us: “Where there is a problem, there is an opportunity.” Your idea can be that opportunity.
Create a conscious need for change by calling attention to a problem and its negative consequences in the organization.
Do your homework to understand the “pain points” and their impacts. Prepare concrete information. Double check your facts. Describe the situation in a compelling and powerful way. Let the numbers talk, but remember to include the human side as well by establishing an Emotional Connection. Ask for Help from those who are also aware of the issue to help you understand how it affects different people in a variety of environments.
Use Corridor Politics and talk with key individuals. Once you have supporters who agree that the threat is real and needs to be addressed, they can help you in a Town Hall Meeting where you can spread the information to others in the organization.
Tell your story. Explain how you recognized the issue but don’t get carried away with details that could keep everyone consumed with the problem. Focus their attention by explaining Just Enough.
Have a solution that people will care about implementing it. Relate it to the goals of the organization (Tailor Made). Use Personal Touch to help individuals answer the question: What’s in it for me?
Point out what could happen if the problem is not solved, perhaps with various scenarios (Imagine That). However, don’t just tell horror stories. Accentuate the Positive -- you want to inspire hope to encourage everyone to discuss potential solutions.
Don’t outline a complete strategy for the solution because it could become all about you. Even if you think you have a good idea, you will get more buy-in if you present it as a rough proposal and then Ask for Help in creating a Concrete Action Plan.
Stay in Touch. Once you have helped others recognize the issue, don’t allow the urgency for reaching a solution to decline as people get busy with other things.
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Wake-Up Call helps to create awareness of the current reality in the organization and the problem(s) that are responsible for it. Listeners will stop and think, “Wow, I didn’t know that!” You will likely bring to light issues that many didn’t see or may have been denying. You are preparing them to open their minds to new possibilities and recognize the need to take action. This allows you to propose your ideas for change.
However, you are not likely to get everyone to care about the problems you raise. Be careful about dwelling on existing predicaments—there can be serious political ramifications. You can come across as a trouble-maker, especially if the old way is owned by those with influence. If too many are not responding to your wake-up call, you may have to Pick Your Battles and move on.
Max became the manager of the customer services team in a large manufacturing company. Even though the team was considered to be the “premiere” leader in the sales division, Max noticed gaps. Rather than approaching the team with “this is what I see,” he tried to help them reach their own conclusions. He called a meeting and began by asking them to rate their customer support as good, very good, or great. The group declared they were “great” and listed all the wonderful things they were doing. Max encouraged them to dig deeper with a follow-up question: “what makes a customer support team great?” As they discussed the question, Max prompted them to think about their personal interactions with customers and benchmark against other companies that have great customer service. This allowed the team to identify important qualities in customer support, including empathy, sound professionalism, and the willingness to take responsibility to meet expectations. Max sounded a wake-up call by asking if there were any gaps in these qualities. The team decided that while a “very good” customer service team has empathy and seeks a complete answer by taking ownership of each problem, a “great” one builds relationships to create trust with their customers. Their Concrete Action Plan pinpointed that customer service representatives would be, among other things, more proactive by reaching out to customers they haven’t heard from in a while to inquire if there is anything they can do for them. The exercise allowed everyone to “wake up” and acknowledge that they weren’t working at their highest possible level and to identify opportunities for improvement. The team is now able to recognize when they are simply meeting or truly exceeding their customers’ expectations.
The system for assigning faculty to committees at one university was tedious and outdated. Ellen drafted a new system that needed to go to the Faculty Senate for approval. Unfortunately, she didn’t use Corridor Politics, so there were many questions and concerns from Senate members following her presentation. When Ellen realized that her proposal was not likely to pass, she politely stopped the discussion and back-peddled with a detailed explanation of the problems in the present system. Senate members reacted with surprise. They had not been aware of the difficulties and were immediately more willing to support her. Ellen then suggested a Trial Run of her new system and the motion passed in her favor.
Paul Levy was appointed to head the BIDMC hospital system, a product of a difficult merger between two hospitals. To signal the need for a new order, Levy developed a bold message explaining that this was BIDMC’s last chance to make improvements. Pointing to his private discussions with the state attorney general, he publicized the real possibility that the hospital would be sold. He knew this bad news might frighten staff and patients but he believed a strong wake-up call was necessary to get employees to face the need for change.
David A. Garvin and Michael A. Roberts, “Change through Persuasion,” Harvard Business Review, February 2005, 104-112.
Hayagreeva Rao and Robert Sutton, “The ergonomics of innovation,” The McKinsey Quarterly, September 17, 2008.
Bob Doppelt, The Power of Sustainable Thinking, Routledge, 2008, 70.
David Collinson, “Prozac Leadership and the Limits of Positive Thinking.” Leadership, 8:2, May 2012.
John P. Kotter and Dan S. Cohen, The Heart of Change, Harvard Business Review Press, 2012, 3.
Bob Sutton, “Work Matters” Blog, http://bobsutton.typepad.com/my_weblog/2012/02/my-main-focus-for-2011-scaling-good-behavior.html
You will find patterns you have done (but probably not recently). You will find patterns you have heard of other people trying (but you have never used). And you will hear of completely new patterns. The main idea is to: use one pattern each day. I think, if you do that, you will win.
Kitty Hawk Consulting
Each strategy is formatted in the form of a "pattern".
An example pattern appears below. References to other Fearless Change patterns are shown in blue.
The patterns transformed me from an ineffective 'voice in the wilderness' to a valued collaborator.
co-author of Agile Testing & More Agile Testing
~ one of the strategies for leading change ~