Manage Change or Drive Change?

July 9, 2013
If you don’t drive change, then someone else will roil the waters, send waves right over your boat, and leave you to sink.

There’s a line from an old Jefferson Airplane song—“Life is change. How it differs from the rocks.” Though we intellectually accept that change is inevitable, many of us resist. As a practicing engineer or manager, certain methods got you and your company where they are today. Why rock the boat? Why not just manage change as it comes and let it in slowly? Here’s the reason why you can’t do that: If you don’t drive change, then someone else will roil the waters, send waves right over your boat, and leave you to sink.

In my career, I’ve driven change in my company and in the industry. I’ve led changes in industry communication protocols, such as HART and Foundation Fieldbus. At Emerson, I drove changes in products and business models. I learned some valuable lessons. These lessons apply to everyone, not just CEOs. All of us see ways to make things better, but very few of us try to drive needed changes. You can do it!

Here is the first lesson: Don’t expect people to buy into your ideas if they don’t buy into you first. This means getting their trust, which must be earned on a daily basis. Your interactions with people over time build trust. Integrity is critical. If people see you as someone they trust, you can drive change. If not, lip service is all you will get.

Next, clearly define the benefits. Complete this sentence: If we can do _________, we are going to be a better _________. Keep it simple and as crystal clear as possible. Remember that most people evaluate a potential change by assessing the direct impact on them and their jobs. If you don’t define the impact in clear and positive terms, people will most likely conjure up a negative conclusion.

In 1990, IBM had its most profitable year ever. By 1993, it was losing $16 billion and was considered a candidate for extinction. Lou Gerstner, who was chairman of the board and CEO from 1993 until 2002, drove a monumental change from a hide-bound hardware company into a solutions company. He wrote a book called “Who Says Elephants Can’t Dance?”. It is required reading for those who want to drive change.

Communicate the goals over and over again. Use every means you can to drive them home. Make sure the communications are consistent, if not downright repetitive. Enlist some allies who can multiply your message. Make sure your allies are comfortable with ambiguity. Like you, they are going to face some flack and have setbacks. Make sure that their internal compass follows True North even if they get shaken. Give people time, but if you encounter a really strong resister, find something else for that person to do.

If changes start to take hold, celebrate and reward those who are making the effort. Publicize early successes and small victories. Be patient but persistent. Look for examples of a similar sort of change in other industries. Tell the story of their success and compare it to your situation. If a change like this worked for them, it could work for us. 

You don’t need to be a CEO or a world leader to drive change. Consider Dick Fosbury. Before him, all high jumpers used a straddle technique. Fosbury thought head first was better. He won Olympic gold in 1968, and the Fosbury Flop became the standard way to jump. I’ll bet there are some equally impactful changes in your work. Go make them happen.

>> John Berra, [email protected], is retired Chairman of Emerson Process Management.