How to use what you already know when managing complex change
he feeling that comes from managing complex change reminds me of something completely different.
Picture the crew of a big Hollywood movie descending on a small New England town. After finding the town in a quaint add featuring an Old Mill, they decided to film their movie there. When the director tells the star-struck mayor that they can’t wait to visit the Old Mill, the mayor apologizes but the Mill was torn down years ago.
“No problem,” the director says. He looks to the screenwriter and says “Just a few re-writes and we can get the mill out of there.” All the while, the screenwriter looks on in terror at the conversation, and then down at the script, where, in a bit of comedic gold, we see the movie’s title for the first time: “The Old Mill.”
We don’t need State and Main to tell us change isn’t easy. Change shakes us from where we are comfortable. Big, complex change is worse –offering a brand of trauma that is easily overlooked by those orchestrating the change (the director) and visceral to those managing it (the screenwriter, you).
Managing complex change requires deconstruction and focus, zooming in and out at the right time. By breaking down the components steps and focusing on fundamentals, the challenges of the change can be fought.
Your goal is to create a change management approach simple enough to be executed, and executed well. You can’t fight complexity with more complexity.
Managing complex change requires doing a lot of small things well. The best way to do this is to focus on those small things so they can be done.
If you're managing complex change, use knowledge wisely
Understand what you already know
The challenge in managing complex change comes from what we don’t know, but great power emerges from using what we do. Practitioners can fall short by not using the knowledge they already have.
A few years ago, I was introduced to a creativity experiment where people are asked to name as many white things as they can in a minute. Most people come up with about seven or eight. Then they are asked to think of as many white things as they can in a refrigerator. Here’s the reveal: they usually get about the same number.
Focusing attention on the refrigerator allows them to channel the relevant knowledge.
Without that attention, we lose focus on the things we already know. These are the unknown knowns, or the curse of knowledge.
Knowing what we know highlights the information we have that managing the change possible by preventing issues and finding solutions.
To inventory the useful things you know that can be used to manage the change:
- Take stock of similar situations you have faced: Why make the same mistakes twice?
- Compare to other projects your team has worked on: Learn from what they learned
- Ask: What core skills or activities will you have to complete? What have you learned from other times where you have done those same things?
- Ask: Who will be involved? Who will be asked to change? What do you know about them?
- If you were to win the lottery tomorrow, what would you tell the poor, non-lottery winning sap replacing you about how to do your job (provided the lottery winnings were such that you cared about leaving on good terms)
Put everything in context
Knowledge and strategy lay fallow if they don't get connected to something that needs doing or something that needs finding. By putting things in context, you can connect the knowledge you inventoried above to solutions to real problems.
For example, if you know that the people in the Accounting Department have been historically resistant to change, you can put that knowledge within the context of your current project: were they resistant to all changes? Was the resistance limited to IT projects? Who has not been involved that needs to be? Who has been involved that might need a different approach?
The knowledge that accounting has been change averse doesn’t have much value until it has enough depth around it to make the information actionable, either by the addition of a new question or insight, or by guiding you toward somewhere new to explore.
Here’s how to gain that context:
- Think through the journalistic questions: Who, what, where, when, why, and how. Do you have answers (or better questions) for each of these? If not, you probably need to ask them more.
- Connect each piece of knowledge you have combined either from suggestions or your own inventory, and make sure that it is connected to an outcome or goal for the project.
- Can you tell a story about the information? If you cannot use the information as a piece of some of its own change journey, it is going to be hard to position that knowledge within the realm of what can be used.
Simplify to core principles
Core principles –essential guidelines that keep you on the right path without confusing the matter—are like super powers when you are facing complexity. When it’s easy to get lost in the darkness of complexity, good principles are a trusty flashlight.
In his book, Smart Thinking (library), Psychologist Art Markman talks about the impact of cognitive tunneling. When a person is faced with stress that pulls their attention away from whatever they were doing, they will tend to put on the “spotlight” and focus intensely on one detail. Doing so will make it impossible for them to see the other things around them.
Their attention literally blinds them to important (potentially critical) details. This can have tragic consequences, as evidenced by the Air France jet that crashed in the Atlantic because the pilots focused on the wrong details and were unable to notice the bigger picture.
Core principles prompt you to focus on something large enough (and something important enough) that you can tear yourself out of that cognitive tunnel. When things get very complex and challenging, you will need those principles.
For example, if your deployment plan involves dozens of different workgroups in different locations and with different schedules, you might become overwhelmed ordering the needs of these stakeholders.
However, if you have a core principle around the education of these stakeholders, you can simplify the question to “what things do I need to accomplish for these workgroups to each have the knowledge they need to manage the change?” That question is a fair refocusing that creates a more productive line of inquiry.
Here are some ways to us core principles to managing complex change:
- At least some of your principles need to be associated with the success criteria: if you don’t have a success criteria to work toward, you don’t have a strong anchor for making tough decisions (here is a good article on creating useful success criteria)
- All the principles need to be simple, repeatable and actionable
- Be sure they are not platitudes: A great rule of thumb for this is found in Donald Sull’s and Kathleen Eiserhardt’s book Simple Rules (library), they suggest only using simple rules where you can argue the opposite. If you cannot argue the opposite (e.g., ‘Do good’) as a simple rule, then it is too broad to be instructive –it just doesn’t tell you anything.
Monitor progress so you can adjust as needed
Last year I helped a good friend drive from New York to Los Angeles over four days. Instead of seeing it as an overwhelming cross-country drive, it was a series of four-day drives between major cities: we didn’t need to manage the entire trip –just worry about getting from New York to Nashville, Nashville to Dallas, Dallas to Tucson, and Tucson to LA.
Progress was measured against how far we were from each of those stops. We knew if we were going to make it based on where we were at that time relative to our stop for the night. We learned that driving 14 hours was probably too much after the first leg (NY to Nashville) and thus, we knew we had more time to make the other days a bit more comfortable.
When you are managing complex change you need to break things down in a similar way. What are the intermediary steps? How do you get from one to the other? Once you have those steps, you can compare how far you are between them, and what remains to get from one to the other.
Monitoring progress is the only way you can make rational adjustments.
When managing complex change, look for what measures or criteria you can use to evaluate progress.
Your project plan probably involves phases or milestones. You know when you’ve reached those either by the outcome or by what has been delivered. What did you run into on the way to those milestones and obstacles? What isn’t working that should be? The milestone is a good time to look.
You can monitor progress and adjust with some of these tactics:
- Set trip wires: A trip wire is an idea mentioned in the great book Decisive, by Chip and Dan Heath. The idea is that you set some condition that tells you that you need to decide. For example, you might say that if you have missed deployment date twice, or that 20% of training invitees didn’t show, you need to revisit messaging.
- Find your proximal measure: You can measure much more than you think. Often, the best way to measure something complex is to look at a nearby variable. In this case, instead of looking at the change itself, you might look at the time it takes people to do something involving the change, or the number of questions that go to the IT help desk surrounding the change.
- Check in with others frequently, both formally and informally: The more perspectives you get from the people involved (and impacted by) the change, the more likely you are to get a complete picture of how the change is going. By getting a large sample size, you can weed out outliers and keep a more accurate reading. Which leads to our next section…
Enlist others to avoid blind spots that arise when managing complex change
We all have blind spots driven by our cognitive biases. Without accounting for these, it’s very easy to miss big truths that can derail our projects.
Eastman Kodak was unable to change quickly enough at the rise of digital cameras. They had a blind spot driven by their first assessment of the technology in its infancy (“too expensive”, “not easy to use”). We all have expectations about how the world works. Those assumptions make us great at observing some things, and blind to others.
When managing complex change, there are so many moving parts throughout the organization, we might not see where all of them lead. The externalities (complex, unforeseen costs of a decision) can snowball out of control.
Say that you deploy a new accounting system. You didn’t know that someone in budgeting or enterprise risk had a homebrew application that tied to a data feed in the old accounting system. No one you talked to knew that. Suddenly that feed is a broken, and a very important person is unable to do important work.
If you had more perspectives, someone might have known about that legacy system, and they might have been able to avoid going dark.
Building a network to avoid blind spots can be done by…
- Making sure there are diverse voices on your team
- Keeping people informed and aware of the change, every step of the way
- Talking to people informally as much as possible
- Building analysis of how people work into every element of the change
Learn new things to make better progress
Use a root cause analysis to identify blocks
When something bad happens in a big way, someone probably does a root cause analysis. You might remember the 9/11 commission report that outlined the ways that the system failed to prevent the attacks.
A Root Cause analysis is an excellent process to go through in a complex situation. When you are managing a complex change, you can deconstruct whatever barriers you face by using a similar process.
The root cause analysis takes what you know about what is happening and continues to drill down by asking important questions: Why is this happening? What caused it? And what caused that?
As the name implies, you don’t stop until you can’t reduce the questions any further. You get to the one cause –the foundation of all your problems—that if addressed, should remove all the effects that are ruining your change management plan.
Example: Suppose people stopped using your solution a few weeks after implementation. They are back on the old system, even though that is getting removed soon. You might deconstruct the cause of the lack of adoption by asking a series of questions:
- Why do I not have adoption?
- The people are not using the system because it is too hard.
- Why do they see the system as too hard?
- It is taking them 100 clicks and 15 screens to get to their core feature.
- Why is it taking them that many clicks? Is it design?
- They figured out this approach on their own, it’s the only way they know how.
- Why is that the only way they know?
- They were not trained.
- Why were they not trained?
- Their manager would not let them attend training.
- Why not?
- The manager doesn’t see the change as valuable and is under-staffed.
Notice that if you were to solve the problem further downstream, say by offering another round of training to the disgruntled staff, that might not have solved your problem. The root issue (the lack of manager support) would have still arisen. You could have thrown the training and no one came.
Here are some ways you can build an effective root cause plan for things that haven’t completely happened yet:
- Do the nightmare test: What are the things that if they happened, would cause you the most concern for the change? Write those down and run through a root cause process with them.
- Find common themes: What causes repeat across multiple nightmare scenarios? Identify these and see what you can do to prevent them.
- Look at causes vs symptoms: Symptoms are easier to spot, but causes must be dealt with. Causes are harder to see because they are not necessarily negative. But they are having a negative impact on the change.
Build a change management plan that works from the top-down
Southwest Airlines is a favorite case study of just about every popular business book. One idea I’ve read a couple of times is that of the vision of SWA. The idea is that everything they do is built on the principles of being the low-cost airline. If something does not help them achieve that, they don’t do it.
They are driven by a core, categorical principle they can use to inform more specific tasks they may need to maintain later.
Think of this as a top-down approach. You start with the big ideas and then you move down. Why would you want to do things this way? Doing this helps you stay grounded in core principles. Instead of worrying so much about the way the specifics need to unfold, you can remember that there are bigger principles moving you toward your goal.
The entire process of managing complex change is a battle of attrition. You are constantly maintaining your focus in the face of confusing priorities, complexity, and the unforeseen. Having something to guide the specific actions makes that a little less taxing on your sanity.
You might need to change the training. Your outreach plan might not have what it needs to get across the finish line. Your stakeholder assessment might miss the point entirely. But if you have some philosophy of how the change should unfold, you have the means to recognize these things and fix them.
Here’s how to start developing those principles:
- You already should know what success looks like for your project, so now it’s time to think: What would need to happen for this to occur? What could happen that would prevent it from happening entirely?
- Revisit the idea of trip wires: What should be your trigger to go back to your core principles? Make sure you and the entire team knows it.
- Take your distance: Schedule time at fixed intervals to look at the big picture. Literally, consider the components of the project as the big rocks you need to move, or the raw clay you need to form. The pebbles and the details can come later.
Managing complex change is not easy. But it does not have to be overwhelming. Your job is to keep the change components from matching the complexity of the change itself. Focus on simplicity and execution.
With the right focus and attention, that is enough to keep the change in check and ensure you are moving toward the right outcome.