This question was raised recently in the “After Hours Chat Room” included in the Learning Series on Real Time Strategic Change I’m hosting.
A little more background on the situation:
“… there is a huge superstructure of management over this project who bring with them some rather set approaches to making things happen which create more obstacles than they do opportunity. When leadership is not about change, how do you work with that?”
This is not an uncommon situation. I’ve experienced it myself many times. When you don’t have the needed commitment from senior leaders, here are three things you can do:
- Tap the wisdom in the resistance you’re experiencing from these formal leaders. You’re better off in the long run gaining and maintaining the upsides of senior leadership commitment and “micro” work you’re doing positively impacting the “macro” organization. The challenge is how to get both. Barry Johnson, a friend, colleague, and participant in the Learning Series has wise counsel about how to do this. He also has a great web site with articles and tools explaining more about Polarity Management©.With a polarity approach to this situation you tap the wisdom in the resistance you’re encountering. Instead of seeing the lack of leadership support as an obstacle (as much as it may feel that way), see if you can begin by affirming what these leaders already believe in. What is working about their current practices that are serving themselves and the organization well? Next, solicit their concerns about doing business differently. What fears do they have about what they would have to give up to put these new behaviors into practice? And only then introduce your ideas about how these might supplement their current practices. Stephen Covey calls this “Seek first to understand before being understood”. If you think about it, we’re all more willing to listen to some additional ideas after we’ve had a chance to express our own. Barry calls this the “Getting Unstuck” process.
I also know there are many books, articles, and workshops about various approaches that require senior leadership commitment. Having that in place makes things much easier and in some situations, it’s really required to make the change work possible. And at the same time, given the reality we face in our work, we don’t always start with the leadership and commitment that’s needed. Especially if you are an internal consultant. Once folks dip into their pockets for external support there’s more investment, literally and figuratively.
- Find ways to support others in the organization in assuming leadership roles. One of the mantras that guides my thinking is, “Who are the people who need to provide leadership for this effort to succeed?” Senior formal leaders make this list but also informal leaders in the organization, those with particular expertise, knowledge or even passion fit the bill.I once worked on a Tuberculosis Control Project with the City of New York. In that effort the head of the public health care system did not want to be involved. It was too fraught with danger politically. Ben Chu, the head of Medical Affairs, took up the formal leadership role for the organization. He had a leadership position in the organization but not the top position. What was most striking for me about the project was that the CEO didn’t help the effort, but at the same time didn’t hurt it either. He largely stayed out of the way and left the organization to its own devices.So…as Herb Shephard has said in his Rules of Thumb For Change Agents, you need to “Start where the system is.” Sometimes that means you’re well positioned with the support you need. Sometimes it means you begin (and in some cases continue) the work with the best leaders you have.
- Focus on ways to expand the perspectives of senior leaders. Without needing to convince these folks about “the way, the truth and the light” that you know and they don’t, see if there are ways to expand their thinking about possibilities. The first Area of RTSC work is Scoping Possibilities. See if you can find ways to introduce leaders to new ideas and ways of working. One of the most effective ways to this is to put your leaders in touch with peers who have faced similar issues. We often use this approach with what we call Change Possibilities panels in large group events. These are people who are a step or two ahead of others in making changes. They can tell stories not only about what they have done but also what they have learned. So it’s not about telling anyone what they need to do. Instead it’s about providing more information so leaders can make better decisions. It may also help to take a staged approach. Change doesn’t occur all at once. Learning doesn’t either.
It’s frustrating to not have leadership backing you for change work you’re doing. Apply these three strategies, and build the support needed to get the job done well.