The not-so-secret insight about what inspires people to change? We humans need to understand why change is important and know what it means to us, personally. A top-down mandate for change by the CEO is hardly inspirational. Sure, the push may get compliance from employees. But it won’t earn their commitment. What will get a high level of employee commitment? Contagious change.
Contagious change is a mindset that focuses on involving those closest to the change in developing the solutions to achieve the desired results. Employees want to leave their fingerprints on the work they do; it’s a metaphorical way to say,
“Look what I helped create. I was here.”
While executives may be initiating change projects to align with their vision for the company, it’s not theirs to marvel at. Executives need to bring in non-executives and non-managers to bring the vision into reality. The effort needs to go from “my brilliant idea” (says the exec) to “our ongoing success” (believes all employees).
In our client work, we’ve seen dramatic progress, commitment, and enthusiasm for change when the principles of Contagious Change are leveraged. We are not suggesting that executives do not play a key role in change initiatives, of course. Our approach is quite the opposite. We know momentum is created when executives, middle-managers, and employees are clear on their roles in bringing about change. Role-clarity for this approach to change is key, as it does not rely solely on traditional, hierarchical relationships.
Who Does What in Contagious Change Efforts
Not all change is initiated at the executive level; the involvement of senior or junior managers is common. With that in mind, the most senior leader who champions the change has these essential responsibilities:
- Make clear the authority levels the change champions have when making decisions
- Positively interact with stakeholders impacted by the change; preferably as a mentor versus a manager
- Provide the resources necessary to start and maintain the change initiative
- Get out of the way so the change team can identify, develop, implement, and monitor the stickiness of their solutions
- Remain available to and answer questions from team members and stakeholders
- Understand that organizational friction—resistance to a new way of doing things—will create barriers and be willing to address those issues
- Insist on a transparent communication practices (and then lead by example)
- Reprioritize the team’s workload to reduce the occurrence of stress and burnout
While the above list isn’t comprehensive, it includes high leverage leadership actions that help create momentum in the change effort.
As for non-executives, typically middle-managers, key responsibilities include providing support for their team members who are participating in designing change solutions. This includes respecting and reinforcing the reprioritized workload by the senior manager, getting comfortable with employees directly interacting with senior management, and being available to troubleshoot problems that often seem to surface during change efforts.
Middle-managers may also be part of the change teams, which we call Solution Focused Workgroups (SFWG), a term we graciously stole from our friend and mentor, Alan Kay.
Solution Focused Work Groups
SFWGs are cross-functional teams, each one with a single focus. The hand-selected team members work together to develop solutions specific to their focus. For example, we worked with the IT division of a major health insurance provider to improve their internal customer experience. That SFWG included a diverse set of members from the IT team, managers, customers, business analysts, and administrative staff members. That particular group, after years of what seemed to be terminal issues with internal customers, developed and implemented high-impact, sustainable change in a matter of weeks.
Those serving on a SFWG, without regard to hierarchy or title, have these key responsibilities:
- Be curious about other people’s ideas
- Always be prepared for leadership coaching
- Openly discuss concerns in a team setting
- Do what you say you’re going to do
- Gather and share feedback from outside the SFWG (including customers and primary stakeholders)
- Hone their presentation and communication skills
- Be ready to pivot when the change, changes
- Serve as ambassadors of their change effort (we call them “Change Champions”)
Again, the above responsibilities are those at the highest level. Naturally, the responsibilities of the entire team and individual team members will vary based on the nature of the change.
The Contagious Change Philosophy
Human emotions are contagious—good or not-so-good, they spread to and affect others.
No matter how well-intended, the response to change is often an emotional one. Equally as important, contagious change does not follow a step-by-step process. Instead, the philosophy is built on five principles:
- Feel and name the pain
- Create a solution-focused community that cares about solving the pain
- Grow your people as they solve the pain
- Prototype passionately and iteratively
- Be available (as a leader and a mentor).
Associated with each principle are specific tools, methods, and activities intended to help make the initial change, then enable it to become contagious.
Finally, for change to be not just contagious but impactful and sustainable, there needs to be a diverse set of people, or stakeholders, involved throughout the effort. Building a change champion community is foundational to the team’s success… and for the overall success of the project, too.
Change is not linear, and neither should the approach you take when bringing change to your organization.
Savvy change leaders understand that our biology interferes with successful change efforts; our brains are hardwired to fight or flee when we face change. For most humans, change is viewed as a threat.
But there are those who are quick to adapt; they show more interest in understanding potential solutions rather than worshiping current problems. This is where leaders come in. Because when it comes to contagious change—change that makes a real difference in your organization – the change champions must be identified, assigned to a group challenged to solve a specific problem, then recognized for their work.
That is how today’s best leaders inspire organizational change… one human at a time.