Many management books tend to promote positive themes like leadership, strength and courage. As you read the featured case studies in those books, they seem to paint an almost perfect impression that people will naturally come along to support change so long as it made sense and that it always seem easy to find a team of aces. But when you look at their description of traits for a winning team, have you ever wondered where are you going to find people like that? Well, we do.
In practice, many leaders are constantly dealing with weak teams filled with individuals who are fearful of change while trying to manage the different facets of greed, insecurity, laziness and a whole host of other human weaknesses. This is the reality in many organisations around the world, and it is best to develop strategies that take into consideration these weaknesses. But at the same time, you do need the weak for the strong to thrive, and they somehow support each other. Being aware of weaknesses is essential to build teams that are composed of different type of individuals who are then able to generate a healthy dynamic to bring about innovation and success. In our decade of work in researching organisations and helping them to achieve change, we discovered that identifying very obvious human weaknesses is important to put in place effective strategies so as to sustain change. The other upside is, once you acknowledge these weaknesses within the organisation; you are really addressing the root of the problem, thus giving you the perspective to implement a change programme that will actually take off.
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Developing Strategy with Human Weaknesses in mind helps
In any environment, we all have varying levels of vanity, greed, laziness and so on but the real challenge is, how do we create environments that know how to manage them while at the same time understand that these too can be drivers for success. For example, laziness can be a motivator to find ways to reduce paperwork and increase efficiency. Vanity can also be healthy too, because if harnessed properly, means that people will take extra care to project a better image for the organisation. But if you were introducing a new strategy without considering human weaknesses, then you are most probably set up for failure.
One recent consulting experience was certainly instructive. We were asked to audit the progress of a national public service agency in Asia. They had developed a comprehensive master plan for change about four years ago, and they wanted an external consultant to review the progress. The review produced a startling insight: while everyone knew what the plan was about, no one was familiar with the details and scope of implementing those changes. That was why change took longer than expected and had come to a standstill. So we had to conduct a strategic workshop to realign goals and develop a more concrete plan. But something even more startling was waiting for us. The project manager who was tasked with the change programme in 2008, decided to show up and share the comprehensive plan that was developed then. But because the superiors did not add in additional resources, it was left dormant and no one, other than the project manager had any clue of the existence of this more developed plan. From any angle, this obviously seem like a serious lack of communication and a breakdown of corporate process. But in reality, the first group of people tasked with the change programme failed to acknowledge the obvious human weaknesses already present within the organisation, and simply implemented change based on a “management book” approach.
From our analysis, this was what really happened:
Vanity Factor: The overall superior at that time had just taken over the agency and needed a new plan to differentiate himself from his predecessor. So after the comprehensive plan was set up and launched with fanfare, there was simply no motivation for him to sustain a programme that will require a huge amount of resources to implement.
Pride Factor: The project manager, a veteran policy planner was a competent individual with deep knowledge of different management approaches. But he let what he knew get to his head. He was so convinced that there was only one way to do this, he ended up working on the document almost alone. He was indeed very proud of his thought process but because others felt slighted (his colleagues had degrees from prestigious universities in the UK and the US), they decided to let this project manager go alone while quietly withdrawing support.
Insecurity Factor: The change programme, proposed four years ago was highly ambitious and would have changed the way each leader is evaluated, since it required them to report timely statistics. This was not needed before and it will affect promotion and bonuses so there was really no motivation to allow this to succeed.
Harnessing Human Weaknesses for Success
In summary, this programme was designed to behave like fireworks and not meant to last for long. Things would have been different if the project manager, who is very familiar with the existing culture, did a proper analysis of the cultural environment before implementing the programme. Using Consulus 6Ps Approach (Featured in the article “A Brand without purpose is a brand without future”), here was what the project manager could have done:
Plan – The project manager should have opted for a quick wins plan rather than a comprehensive plan which will only see results in years. He should have sold the plan to the superior of the agency, the value of a legacy so that long after his promotion, his impact will still be felt in the organisation.
Person – Instead of leading the programme, the project manager should have opted to be the secretary of the committee. This would have put him in a key position to influence change while at the same time allow him to bring on a powerful sponsor to lead the committee.
Process – The committee should have implemented the programme in three parts. The first part should have been about selling the plan to the leaders and getting their feedback. Then the next stage should have been to the staff of the agency before finally going to the public. Along the way, the committee should try and adopt the goals of different leaders so as to gain buy-in and let it be seen as a plan to help advance their goals.
Practice – The planned collection of statistics was one of the most difficult aspect for implementation. The committee should have opted to collect statistics that were readily available which just needed consolidation. This would then have given the impression of a momentum. Then after everyone has seen the benefits of the dashboard, to then apply for more resources to do a more sustained level of tracking. By then the different departments would have been used to the process of sharing, hence enabling the programme to succeed.
Propaganda – Rather than have a big bang, the project manager should have proposed an annual day to celebrate the growth of the programme. This would have enhanced the vanity factor for all involved as it clearly celebrated the small wins and give people an obvious stake in ensuring the continued success of the programme.
Performance – The project manager should have convinced the superior to slowly ease in the evaluation aspect of this programme. There should have been a trial run and a scheduled review at the end of one year. This will give everyone time and space to participate and not be overtly concerned about the impact of this programme on their own performance in the immediate year. This would have bought time for him and the committee that the change can be a big plus for their own performance.
Obviously, the above is a hypothetical scenario of what it could have been had the project manager considered human weaknesses before implementation. But we have often deployed this approach, and it has worked because we took the time to understand who needed to win and how to we sustain those wins. Usually after analysing the relational dynamics and roles of leaders within the organisation, we tend to ask the following because of our insights of human weaknesses:
What is considered a win for the change programme and how do we present the plan in a way that can be a win for all?
This is based on the insight that there must always be an internal person who will benefit most from this programme while, at the same time, there must be something for key supporting leaders. Without considering in what specific ways others will benefit, we would have set it up for failure.
Who do we need to sustain the programme and what’s in it for them?
In an organisation, people are at different stages of their growth in terms of their careers so it is important to sense the aspirations of the young and attempt to weave this into their personal programme for growth. The more people see that it could mean something to them, the more sustainable the programme will be.
How do we secure buy-in to ensure that the process will last beyond our stay?
Ultimately lack of resources and human capacity are always thrown in as excuses to slow down change programmes. So it is necessary to work a lot on the benefits, especially to administrators, how this programme actually strengthens their hand. So people in finance and human resource functions are really important in this process and it is important to have a simpler way for them to track as they are already overburdened with administrative tasks.
How do we design and grow support from the ground which will act as a way to continue to act as a growing lobby on the need to sustain change?
Making your programme likeable is important, the advantage we tend to have is, since we also have creative people on board, we know how to develop memorable slogans with beautiful graphics to sell the vision internally. Many change programmes are perceived as difficult because they sound difficult. So making your change programme marketable or appealing is an important ingredient for buy-in.
How do we keep this programme alive through seeding a public agenda so as to ensure the sustained development of this initiative?
Customers nowadays are demanding better service so connecting change from within to meeting customer goals is critical. Too many change programmes talk about how good the company is going to be without talking about the value to customers. So linking change to the evolution of their service experience will create another type of lobby to remind the organisation to keep up with their promises.
How do we secure quick and sustained wins to build an unstoppable momentum?
We always believe that a visible win is more important than a grand plan. People need to see some quick wins in order to have faith in the system and so planning for one quickly is important. It is better to have a less than perfect plan but at least it is moving than to have great plan which will not see the light of day.
At the end of the day, implementing any strategic change while considering human weaknesses is like driving in a real traffic environment. Never assume that others will react in a rational way, always be on the look out and stay alert. Therefore when you implement change with the perspective of human weaknesses, you will have a higher chance of ensuring sustainable success.
This article is part of a weekly column called Shaping the World where Lawrence and Shiraz share insights and ideas about building innovative Asian Brands. It is published by one of the leading dailies in Sri Lanka, Ceylon Today.
Lawrence Chong is the CEO of Consulus, an innovation consultancy specializing in helping Asian companies transform their business models to rise up the value chain through business design, organisational development and designing new brand experiences. Consulus’ country representative in Sri Lanka is Shiraz Latiff who is also the CEO/Lead Consultant of Hummingbird International, a regional knowledge house specializing in coaching, consulting & outsourcing through global partnerships & collaborations.