We focus on finding solutions to our problems, but sometimes the bigger challenge is choosing the right problem to solve. Sports like basketball make it easy — score points and the team with the most wins. Business and life, on the other hand, are much harder. You can spend decades scoring baskets only to find out that rebounds are what mattered … or time of possession … or total electrolytes consumed.
When we look at widely admired leaders, we often find people who have an unshakeable sense of the problem they were solving. It guides them, tells them when to compromise, when to be radical and when to be unyielding despite the odds.
In the business world, the identified problems too often miss the point. Smart people convene and identify a challenge that boils down to one of a handful of mandates:
- We must grow.
- We must increase revenues.
- We must reduce costs.
- We must be more innovative.
- We must minimize risk.
Smart people hire smart consultants and together they settle on a welter of solutions to solve the company’s big problems. The proof of their education, intelligence, experience and hard work is a huge slide deck and an even bigger project plan.
Yet they have miscalculated, not because their solution is wrong, but because it solves for the wrong problem. Over thirty years of research now makes it clear that human factors derail large change efforts. There are almost no exceptions. As John Kotter puts it in The Heart of Change, “The central issue is never strategy, structure, culture or systems … The core of the matter is always about changing the behavior of people.”
We introduce changes and often overlook the thousands of ways that people can derail them. A solution that does not account for these human factors never changes behaviors and, therefore, cannot achieve a meaningful return. It’s all the misery of a strict diet without any positive health benefit! What makes matters worse is that your next change effort is probably already on the horizon.
Count the number of corporate kickoffs you’ve had in the past two years. How many times have those efforts ended in an equally-promoted event to celebrate success? If you’re not creating champions and regularly celebrating milestones, you are almost surely part of the 75 percent of organizations that are unable to convert change initiatives into productive outcomes.
The people who succeed at large-scale changes insist on being clear about the rationale, positive in tone and simple in execution. You cannot compromise these elements and expect to succeed.
Strategic communicators are there to remind you of that. If you engage them early enough (before the plan is finalized), they can help you create a solution that accounts for the human factors that can stand in the way of successful change. A perfect solution that few will accept and fewer can act upon is no answer at all.
Or … go ahead and tee up the next kick-off meeting. Each time you launch a change effort that starts with a bang and disappears within a few months (or even weeks), you teach employees to be a little more skeptical and the next change effort will be even harder to get through.