Many business leaders are currently steering their organizations through the stormy seas of 2023: from economic uncertainty and political instability to seismic shifts in everything from technology to regulation. Whether it is implementing a strategic shift, updating and incorporating more technology or a pivot aimed at efficiency gains and cost reductions, change is a necessity for many companies, and those with the greatest competitive advantage are those that embed a change capability into their culture.

Our experience working with organizations going through change, along with  research by Prosci, a leader in the study and science of change management for more than 25 years, point to active and visible sponsorship at the senior-most levels of leadership as the top factor influencing successful change. Yet many companies skip the critical step of aligning leaders in a rush to achieve business imperatives – an early misstep that inevitably slows progress later in the process..

This article highlights key considerations for aligning leaders in two key areas: (1) establishing a shared North Star vision and (2) agreeing on the mindsets and behaviors with which everyone will engage. These elements set the stage for effective long-term leadership of the change, which statistically increases the likelihood of achieving desired outcomes by as much as 44 percent.

Go slow to move fast – aligning on a shared North Star.

Strategic speed is a function of leadership guiding decisions about when teams need to be pushed to immediate and decisive action (e.g., responding to a true crisis) and when there is an advantage to first building alignment. Abraham Lincoln’s famous quote, “Give me six hours to chop down a tree, and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe,” is a perfect example of prioritizing effective preparation over a desire to show immediate impact.

In change management, aligning leaders around a shared North Star is the equivalent of sharpening the axe. Leaders will have clarity on the desired outcomes for the business, customers and employees, and that clarity will drive future prioritization of tasks and more efficient decision-making as the program progresses. If ideas and recommendations from one proposal don’t lead to the desired outcomes – or if the impact is relatively less than other options – the proposal doesn’t move forward.

So, what makes a good North Star?

Visualization has long been a part of elite sports. Olympic athletes train mentally for winning by visualizing what success looks and feels like. Defining a North Star does the same for organizations. It provides focus and an inspirational picture of what success looks like – both inside and outside the organization.

In our experience, four key characteristics define an effective North Star. It must be:

  • Project-specific It should outline the aspirations, rationale and intended outcomes for the project in a memorable, simply articulated message. In this way, it is distinct from the overall organizational mission – it’s narrower and it can be achieved within the time period allotted for the project.
  • Unifying – and inspiring – for the whole project team Change programs often span multiple locations and functions within an organization. The outcomes may disproportionately benefit certain groups directly, but everyone should be able to see the benefits of the broader program. Without a North Star, no one in your organization knows where you are going; with it, everyone can take action that helps to move the organization toward it.
  • Customer-centric At the end of the day, organizations are measured by the results they deliver – generally in terms of revenue and profitable growth. These metrics are inextricably linked to the customer value proposition, which means that most North Stars focus on enabling customer success. Put another way, what companies are doing internally must also deliver value externally, and it’s important to make this connection overtly.
  • Ambitious Research has shown that committing to shared goals improves team performance, particularly when goals are challenging and ambitious. It’s essential to set a bar  high enough to push teams out of their comfort zones and encourage fresh thinking, but it also has to be realistic to encourage commitment.

The true value of defining a North Star lies not only in the focus and clarity it provides to the organization, but also in the conversations that it inspires within the leadership team. If there is misalignment across the team, it will be resolved as the North Star is defined, ensuring everyone is on the same page when the direction has been set, key decisions are being made and implementation has started.

Break the inertia – recognizing the telltale signs you’ve hit a wall

Leaders need both “hard” and “soft” skills to manage through change. Hard skills focus on numbers, systems, processes and detailed operational planning. These skills tend to drive decisions about who’s on a transformation team. But it’s the “soft” skills focused on setting a vision, communication, influence and an ability to drive consensus that allow organizations to thrive through change – and it’s essential that leaders are reflecting on and building capabilities in change leadership throughout a transformation project.

Having led hundreds of change projects across a wide variety of industries over the past decade, we’ve compiled a list of telltale signs indicating it’s time to refresh the “soft skill” communications and change leadership strategy in order to break through barriers to progress:

  • Analysis paralysis: Every meeting ends with a desire for more data and benchmarks. Leaders are looking for clear and decisive evidence to point them in the right direction, when in reality, they often need to test and iterate proposed strategies to get to the right answer. It’s time to move to action.
  • Deference to a fault: Whether it’s role confusion, lack of capacity or a (not-so) silent protest that they weren’t included in the “right” ways, leaders stop progressing their own efforts and instead wait for a project management office to do the work for them… and then inevitably hate the solution. They need to be truly engaged as partners.
  • An endless circle of finger pointing: Leaders acknowledge change is necessary but fail to see it within their own teams. They seem to believe that, if other teams adapted to their style of work, understood why they needed more resources than everyone else or simply worked harder, the company wouldn’t be in this position. They need to understand that everyone will be held accountable to certain targets – change is happening everywhere.
  • The standoff: Leaders know exactly what they need to do differently but believe that, if they’re among the first to offer concessions or compromises, they’ll be asked to give more as the planning continues. To limit impact on their teams, they wait for other leaders to blink first. In extreme situations, leaders have learned that, if they delay long enough, the organization will eventually move on to the next initiative, and they won’t have to change at all. Larger targets need to be broken down into individual accountabilities to enable early adopters to lead by example.
  • The institutional memory that just won’t fade: A vocal group believes every idea has been tried and things are the way they are for a reason. Brainstorms are fruitless because every proposed change is quickly shut down. These leaders simply can’t see how the playing field has changed or be open to trying again with a new team and safeguards in place. New meeting structures and other empowered voices need to be engaged to change the narrative. Data may also help.
  • The mystery of the disappearing decision: Leaders nod in polite agreement during the discussion but reserve the right to re-think and sidebar after the fact. By the time the group reconvenes, it’s as if a decision was never reached, and the same topics are revisited. Leaders may need to literally sign on to decisions and senior sponsors must make it clear that the team will move forward.
  • “Hunger Games,” change edition: Leaders concerned about their own job security adopt unhealthy and unproductive survival instincts such as data hoarding, unhealthy competition, throwing peers under the bus when mistakes are made or simply spreading rumors. They must be held accountable for their actions, but more importantly, sponsors must get to the heart of the underlying issues to get these team members fully engaged.

If these scenarios sound familiar, it’s time to act to realign the leadership and project teams and reinvigorate progress. A reboot of your change management strategy may focus on clarified roles and responsibilities, targets, decision-making authority and deadlines (process- and communications-oriented) or it may be more experiential in nature. For example:

  • Take your team on a journey to the future, to a time when goals have been realized and benefits are being felt. Work backward to see what needed to fall into place to make that reality happen or gamify the exploration of promising opportunities step by step to see how changes in conditions alter the outcomes.
  • Create a friendly competition among teams by benchmarking progress toward specified targets (e.g., number of people who have logged into a new system or progress toward a savings goal) and tracking it on a leader board. Keep the visual front and center in ongoing meetings, publicly thank key contributors (we’ve had teams hand out gift cards or medals on the spot) and talk openly about where initiatives are falling behind – no hiding and no excuses (but the humble brag is encouraged).
  • Find new ways to recognize and reward contribution, including strategies that encourage team members to appreciate each other in addition to top-down recognition. Be deliberate about whether a team-based or individual incentive will be more impactful in encouraging the behavior you want to see and be sure the incentives really matter to those receiving them.
  • Consider an “I couldn’t disagree more” exercise that encourages teams to share different points of view on trivial topics as practice for future debates around the change that will need to happen.
  • Change your meeting structure, whether that’s introducing timed agendas, redefining speaker/facilitator roles or requiring everyone involved to sign on to the decisions that were made (no sidebars or revisiting).
  • Celebrate interim successes to underscore progress and encourage others to come along.

Whatever strategies are chosen, leading change skillfully brings a level of credibility, focus and (ideally) fun to the project that a singular focus on the process never can. It allows organizations to achieve their transformation goals more quickly and emerge as an even stronger and more unified team.

(This article was co-authored with Shannon Stucky of FTI Consulting)

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