It’s not you it’s me

Transformation differs from traditional strategy implementation in that transformation typically includes an element of cultural change, introduction of new concepts and ways of working.  The role of a transformation leader is to be able to put an executable program of work in place that will enable a company to embrace the new ideas, methods and mindsets. 

It is inevitable in my experience that at some point the transformation leader (usually me on a stage or one of my team in a dept meeting setting) is going to be standing in front of a bunch of seasoned business executives and suggesting that they need to do things differently. Even with great communication, executive sponsorship and sound reasoning, what happens next is entirely predictable. 

There will be objections.  

If there are no objections either people have not understood or you are not being ambitious enough.  Such objections are usually statements defending inertia (or SDIs).  Some examples are :-

  • We have already tried that and it did not work
  • That will never get past compliance (or the regulator)
  • My department is different and the change does not apply to us
  • You are being too idealistic
  • You don’t understand my business

Early on in my career when I heard these SDIs from say, Bob a business leader, my reaction was that “Bob just does not get it” and that Bob is a laggard and not worth the effort. However after over the years it dawned on me that if everyone “got it” straight away then transformation would be easy and I would be out of a job.  The issue was not with Bob but with me – I had not done a good enough job for Bob.

I started to look for strategies on how to deal with SDIs.  Since SDIs were predictable I realised that I should at the very least consider how I should answer each ahead of time.  However, I was ultimately inspired by Chris Voss the ex FBI hostage negotiator who recounts in his book “Never Split the Difference” how there tends to be a list of predictable objections from kidnappers during a negotiation.  Chris describes how he raised them before they can be surfaced by the kidnapper thereby diffusing their impact.  He calls this the “accusation audit”.  By borrowing this idea we developed an SDI audit approach that helped enormously when executed well.  During the communication of a new concept we would say something along the lines of “You may think that this does not apply to you but let me explain why it does” or “Let me explain why this is different from anything else we have tried before”. 

At DBS we never fired a single person for not “getting it”.  We realised that resistance came from the failings of those of us driving the transformation and that we need to continuously improve our approaches. You certainly need a backbone when you are drink transformation. There will be plenty of naysayers along the way. It helps to know that if they did not exist something is wrong.

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