What's Tony Thinking

Leading Change


Over the weekend we happened to be at a kind of fitness/ sports facility, the Pro Club in Bellevue. No, I was not refining my golf swing (I don’t have one). We were taking one of our grandchildren to his swimming lesson.

The Pro Club, which is quite a complex, is in the midst of some kind of renovation or expansion and pretty torn up. The usual entrance was closed. You had to follow marked routes over and around, but it was all set up pretty well so we ended up where we were supposed to be in the humid string of rooms with a half-dozen different pools and hundreds of kids bobbing in the water.

I noted the chain-link fencing around the Pro Club’s construction was wrapped in plastic sheeting featuring huge, full color depictions of the new, renovated state “coming in” whenever.

In other words, the mess was wrapped up in pictures of the new thing. Clever. I’ve often thought that when you are leading change, you have to work hard at painting a picture of the new thing (before you’ve got it) so people are more likely to loosen their grip on the status quo.

You might say that Jesus worked this way. He came, the gospels tell us, announcing a new thing. “The Kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe.” The new reality is here, turn around and enter. His ministry of healing, casting out demons, and teaching then provided pictures and experiences of that new reality breaking into the old order.

In the 1960’s a guy named David Gleicher, then working for the Arthur C. Little Consulting firm, put this kind of thought into a formula for change. Twenty years later, Kathie Dannemiller simplified it in what became the equation D + V + FS > R. I got onto this via my friend Bob Woodruff who was then teaching in the “Whole Systems Design Program” at Antioch in Seattle.

It is a quite useful concept for anyone leading or part of organizational change to keep in mind.

The “D” stands for distress. You’ve got to have some amount of heat, dis-satisfaction, gap for any kind of change process to have half a chance. To judge from our experience at the Pro Club their “D” was overcrowding. It’s a busy place. And one of the striking things, there in the neighborhood of Microsoft, is that many of the users, perhaps a majority, are Indian and Asian.

Back to the change process.

The “V” stands for Vision. A picture of what better or a new reality looks like. That’s what was draped on the fencing, masking the mess. In a change process, leaders have to draw a vision that people can see, if only in their minds or imaginations.

The “FS” stands for First Steps. What are specific actions we are asking you to take to get this thing underway. Usually small steps are better. Break it down into manageable pieces. At the Pro Club, those first steps were literal ones as we were guided by their signage along a winding path to the temporary entrance. First step, follow the signs.

So to conclude: “> R” stands for more than resistance. If you’ve got some distress, plus a vision of better, plus specific and realistic first steps then you have some chance of overcoming normal, natural human and institutional resistance to change.

As change goes the Pro Club expansion is pretty easy stuff. It is external. It is when you are asking people to do some internal change, to change long-established behaviors and values, to experience change of heart and mind, that this work is really challenging. Still, the Gleicher/ Dannemiller formula is a helpful tool to keep in mind.

The fact that this tool is described as a “formula” should not be taken to mean that change, particularly the deeper kind I just mentioned is ever formulaic. It never is. Partly that is true because, as Ron Heifetz often points out, the real issue isn’t actually change at all. It is loss. Leading change means you are asking people to sustain some losses. And most people find it easier to see what they are losing than what may be gains.

There is a huge need today for courageous leaders who can guide change and keep at it when the going is rough. Some of you who read this blog are those people, those leaders. Bless you. My hope is that this formula or equation will provide you a tool or a handle for doing that hard and important work.





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