Tourists & Cowboys: the Art of Leading Change

Have you ever seen a child take something they have experienced and then mimic it in play? This can be a cute, charming moment, unless it’s a replay of Uncle Rusty’s last bar story. Right or wrong, without a filter, kids have a way of replaying behaviors or words in ways that put Academy Award performances to shame.
So it is with leading change in the corporate world. Why should you care? Because without a filter, you will have two problems on your hands: tourists and cowboys. Both will create more work, ultimately holding you back from successfully leading change and sustaining it. No matter your position on a project, consider yourself a leader of change, and consider tourists and cowboys your problem.

There are people in your organization who will adopt the change, but not until someone spoon feeds it to them. They want you to show them what to do, and how to do it. They are the tourists in your organization. The ones who attend meetings, smiling and showing you good support, but then after the meeting, they ask you what they should do next. They just sat through 60-90 minutes of a presentation on the change, and they ask you for talking points about it. If you don’t give them what they ask for, they will wait. No sense carrying things forward without conditions being perfect. It’s much safer that way for everyone, right? There is fear behind that waiting, but I will save that discussion for another blog. Telling people they are empowered to go forward isn’t enough. They need a filter.

There are people in your organization who have enthusiasm and energy for change, often times riding off on their own to get started, making up their own rules. Just like the Wild West. Or so it seems to those leading the change. For the most part, they are well-meaning, driven people who don’t realize they are taking things outside the value stream. Innovation and self organizing is a good thing, unless it’s done without that filter. Then you run into a mess like Uncle Rusty’s bar story being repeated in the first grade classroom. Once there is a mess, you will have to divert resources to fix it. You can’t ignore it, because that will risk giving your overall change a black eye.

The Art
Tourists and cowboys (and all of your stakeholders and audience) need a filter, and that is your vision for the change. The vision of your change creates clarity for people. This is the sweet spot of the art of leading change, and so there are many ways to do it. No matter your approach to sharing and leading with vision, there is one starting place for all change: sponsors. Always begin with your core sponsors patiently repeating themselves over and again to stakeholders and your audience. If they do not have time to do this, then they are not the right sponsors for your change.
Part of this vision should include a discussion about empowerment. What do people have the freedom to do to make this change happen? Who needs to know that it’s up to them to help move barriers to change out of the way, that it’s not someone else’s job? Give them permission, but don’t give them a prescription.
Next, give everyone something they can do right now. Offering people guideposts will help them engage in the change, and get on the road to adoption, without the outlier behavior. Give them new concepts about the change to think about, to discuss among their teams. Tactical steps to change are important but overemphasized. Give your stakeholders and audiences more concepts to think about and discuss with their teams. This will help them internalize the change better, and will lead to sustaining it.
Finally, take a moment now to reflect on your work. Are you acting like a tourist, waiting for someone to show you, when you should be empowered to step forward and lead change? Are you acting like a cowboy, running outside the value stream because your (insert really important reason) is the best way? Your intentions are good; just make sure they have the filter of vision.

2 thoughts on “Tourists & Cowboys: the Art of Leading Change

  1. Pingback: Broken Mayo & Adopting Change | Francie Van Wirkus

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