"Don't worry, we're here to help!"

Run screaming. These are the words that signal that a big change is going to happen, and that it may not be in your favor. At least, that's what I learned when I really listened to the departments we've worked with over the years.

"Change management" is a sometimes-ugly process. Even the word management smacks of hubris—that presumption that somehow an outsider knows more (and should have the authority to make decisions) about what's going on in your environment than you do. Most people brace for impact, readying justifications of their work to date or distancing themselves from past failures.

Smart teams who are working to enable innovation throughout existing organizations can benefit from a couple of key lessons which have been shared with us (and which we now try to apply when we have the job of helping teams go through big changes).

'Yes' is better than 'acquiesce': focus on aligning, not convincing

Team alignment is incredibly important. Most efforts to go through change try to communicate the changes happening by trying to convince people that the change at hand is in their interests. My colleague Miles Kierson, who wrote the book The Transformational Power of Executive Team Alignment distinguishes the relationships to decisions as falling into two categories.

The first and most common way people relate to decisions at work is whether or not they agree, based primarily in "what's in it for me?" Based on their assessment of whether or not what you're proposing appears to be in the interests of the people you're working with—which also includes the people they care deeply about, like key customers or colleagues—their relationship to each of the decisions in the discussion might range anywhere from 'buy-in' (which, when you think about it, means that they will invest their time and efforts in what you're doing because they see the value for them and the people they care about) to more passive states like acquiescence ('I won't block this, but I'm not putting my neck on the line for it either') to outright disagreement or even sabotage.

Fundamentally, all of these variations on agreement tend to fall in the realm of certain kinds of social power: power-over and power-under. Power-over conversations basically fall into the category of bullying: exerting rank or authority, using coercion or forcing an outcome. And power-under conversations are essentially variations on victimhood: submitting, tolerating or acquiescing.

Instead of getting into agreement or disagreement about particular decisions, focus on alignment. Otherwise, every new moment of decision will feel like you’re going uphill, because anything new is against the gravitational 'pull' of predominant thinking and momentum in the organization. Alignment is distinct from agreement. Alignment means that the people in the discussion are committed to the vision and outcomes of a project and trust the people at the table. When that alignment between everyone's personal view of where things should be headed is present, team alignment is possible. It's at this point that the relationships of the team can stay strong through difficult moments of disagreement. It's not that the quality of each individual decision shouldn't be good, but that each decision should be related to a larger vision so that, in short, even if people disagree on the tactic, they can still participate fully because they know they are aligned with the long-term outcomes and vision.

If the entire team is not aligned with the vision and outcomes of a project, every strategy will appear wrong to someone, and every decision will occur as imperfect. Project leaders will have a hard time figuring out why some decisions seem to get traction and others don't.

This process of alignment can be an explicit conversation, too, and probably should be—it's important to acknowledge the true power to make or break a given initiative lies in the team who will grow a project to fruition and maintain it—long after members of an innovation enablement team come to help plant and grow the seeds that brought it about and then move on to their next project. The conversation can be as simple as asking the team to assume good intent and inviting everyone to be curious about the thinking which preceded a recommendation or decision, so that they can be clear about how it connects to the larger vision.

The What, Why, How and Ask: Beginning with Alignment in Mind

Creating alignment with a project team, partner or client is different than trying to get 'buy-in' by 'selling' people on your idea. Empathy, curiosity, credibility and a sense of possibility need to all be present before you ever ask for a commitment to a course of action. Those pieces may come in just a few moments of conversation, or could take years, and must be tended to well into a project.

All of these pieces of conversation are focused on the problems or challenge your client is facing. Some are simple problems, where both the problem and the solution is already known—someone just has to do it. Others are complex problems, where the problem is fairly well-known, but the solution isn't clear yet. And some are what, in design thinking, are called wicked problems—problems that aren't even clear yet. These might manifest in the form of symptoms, like unease on the team, an undiagnosable downturn in revenue, or failures of previously-successful tactics for business development.  

I'm going to introduce some key ways (or patterns around which) to have a conversation with someone about any kind of problem. They're somewhat sequential patterns, but you will probably be best served by thinking of these as guidelines to improvise by rather than a script or set of rules.

Listening to their problems, seeing their opportunities

There are three important questions to ask about the challenges you solve for people before ever proposing action: they obvious what, why and how. The hack, though, is that it's not answering questions around your point of view, but around the experience the client is having. What do they say the problem is? What's their point of view about the problem? And how would they like it solved?

What: Relationship and Relevance

First, what is the problem you are solving? It’s important to make sure you are actually working on the same things your [potential] clients find most important. Keep the statement of this problem simple, in language which works for your clients. Showing them that you understand their problem is a powerful way to build rapport and indicate your relevance to them not out of any trickery, but through genuine connection, and has them get why you might be a potential match for what they need.

Establishing: Rapport

  • You: demonstrate empathy when surfacing existing problems & curiosity about the vision of the organization.
  • Identification and reflection of the problems relevant to your client or partner
  • Endpoint: "You get me.'
  • Pitfalls:
    • Focusing on the wrong problem. An obvious example: if the problem the client or partner presents is “our online advertising campaigns aren’t working for us,” be sure to ask if the problem is the campaign’s content, the tools delivering it, or if the root problem they’re solving for is actually just promotion, not specifically online ads.
  • Example:
    • “We’re not able to launch new apps as quickly as we need to, so we can’t stay competitive and relevant.”

Why: Point of View and Credibility

Why do you think your clients are having this problem in the first place? Some clients have figured out why their problem is occurring, and others have not, but they’ve all thought about it. In order to build credibility, you have to articulate your unique point of view on both the problem itself and why it’s happening. One of two things will happen: either your client/partner sees that you share their point of view, or the client/partner sees that you have a new, useful point of view on a problem that they've been having trouble solving.

  • Establish credibility by reflecting an existing point of view and/or introducing a new angle (on why the problem is happening).
  • Endpoint: “You get why this is happening.”    
  • Pitfalls:
    • If the client/partner sees that you share their existing point of view, your value may be in labor or capacity only (rather than having opening up possibilities through a new point of view, which could result in a more strategic view)—the outsourcing vs. consulting/partnering role
    • If the client/partner doesn't share the fundamental mindsets or worldviews you have, your 'why' might appear out of touch with their world; it's important to find a common ground and realize that you likely cannot successfully introduce solutions which are outside of that common ground—no matter how right you are—because they won't 'take root' in your client or partner's environments
    •  Example:
  • “New apps are hard to launch quickly without development tools and trained designed teams.”

How: Tangible Solutions

 Do you and your client/partner see a new possibility for action? How might you propose your clients’ or partners’ problems be solved? Presented after clear reflection of the what and why of the client’s problem, talking through what could be possible should be simple because of the context and rapport you’ve built. This is not an ask for commitment (that’s next). Instead, this is the precursor, an “Aha!” moment during which people can say “yes, I’m inspired.” Leave people with a sense of possibility that has them genuinely open to tangible action, whether or not it’s with you.

Establishing: Possibility

  • Endpoint: “I can see how we could solve this!”
  • Pitfalls:
    • If there isn’t followthrough to the next (but discrete) step, which is to take action, the possibility will probably feel like it went away. This is in some ways worse than not having the conversation at all.
    • Collapsing your ‘ask’ into the conversation about what’s possible. Mixing the possibility of a new future with an ask will leave people feeling like they have to say yes to you in order to take action on the new possibility. When they sense that pressure they may resist the conversation. The best example is the unscrupulous salesman—you may be excited for a new car, but not the one he’s selling. If the sell is really hard, the temptation will be to say that you’re not interesting in buying, rather than saying that you’re just not interested in this car.
  •  Example:
    • “Creation of an ‘appification’ team that works throughout the organization to quickly launch new, relevant, well-desgined apps could make us quicker to launch.”

Ask: when it's time for action and commitment.

What concrete next steps will you ask your client or partner to take? Only once the possibility is present—the idea which inspires (breathes life into) people—can you ask people to take action and have it stick. If you find that you are getting commitments from people but they don’t follow through, it might be that they don’t actually feel the project or initiative you are focusing on is actually possible, or they were saying yes to the possibility they saw, but not necessarily the course of action you proposed.

  • Establishing: Reality (next steps)
  • Endpoint: “I know what my role is and what to do next.”
  • Pitfalls:
    • Missing structures for followups. If there is not an easy way for people to proceed with clear next actions, nothing will progress. This could be as simple as a recap email and a next meeting, or as complex as a kickoff launch sprint, but one way or another, ensure next steps are very clear and recorded alongside the ‘what,’ ‘why’ and ‘how’ conversations you already had so that context is present when they next check on the project.
    • Proposing a solution you had in mind before listening to your client or partner’s problems. It sounds obvious, but people often come up with well-intended solutions before they speak with their clients or partners, and then present the same solution at the end of their initial discussion because they know it well or are attached to it—even if it’s not as relevant as they’d hoped. Doing so will undermine your credibility.
  •  Example:
    • “Can we move forward with a pilot project to test the concept of an ‘apppification’ team? … Great, can we have a launch meeting and sprint by the end of the month?”