Letter from Managing Director, PMI India   |   Download a PDF version     

Enabling Individuals as the Drivers of Change
By Tathagat Varma, Founder & CEO, Thoughtleadership.in
A key leadership challenge is to initiate and lead systemic changes that will set an organization up for success in future. Indeed, nothing else perhaps sums up why we need leaders in the first place. However, the odds are brutal – the pace of change is already furious and it only seems to be accelerating with each passing day. That pace brings an ever-increasing amount of complexity and uncertainty. There are no guarantees that the chosen direction and pace will lead to a better situation, for the changes are too complex for anyone to understand and discern, let alone predict and assure.

Any change ultimately boils down to individuals in the organization, for every non-human change is simply a matter of updating processes, bringing in new policies, or introducing new technologies. The reasons behind change might go beyond economic advantages – they could introduce consistency in quality, flexibility in deployment, and scalability in operations that result in new opportunities.

Leaders and Employees Join Hands
This leaves a leader to essentially lead the change among people. I consider all change to be human at a fundamental level, with a high social context. If a leader can’t excite and motivate her team members to embrace the change and play their part in making it happen, there is no way the leader can succeed by herself. In a 2015 article in Forbes, author Mark Murphy said that the top reason why CEOs get fired was for “mismanaging change.” The fourth and fifth reasons were “denying reality” and “too much talk and not enough action,” respectively. These two seem very close to the number one reason.

In today’s employee-centric market, there are no guarantees that a leader will be able to make team members accept changes. The days of a CEO using a town hall or simply an email to set off change are over; for there is no such thing as autopilot when it comes to change. A leader must walk on the floor, get down into the trenches, and work with the rankand file to make the change happen.

However, how does an individual contribute to change? While everyone expects individuals to participate in organizational change, they mostly fail to recognize the factors that would motivate people, for example how the change will help their careers. Should leaders simply insist on individuals delivering the results, or should they play the central role in enabling conditions where individuals riseto the occasion and proactively lead the change instead of simply participating in it?

Five Behaviors that Trigger Change
In my experience, there are five key behaviors that turn employees into “individuals leading the change.” These behaviors build on top of each other, so I recommend starting from the first and not skipping any.

Growth Mindset
Prof. Carol Dweck of Stanford University describes two types of mindsets – fixed mindset and growth mindset. People with a fixed mindset almost deny any opportunity to improve themselves or get involved in exploring new ideas, and eventually become deadwood. People with a growth mindset are constantly seeking new challenges that stretch their physical or cognitive skills. Even if they fail in their efforts in the short-term, they don’t give up but ultimately develop a mindset of continuously re-equipping themselves. Needless to say, those with a growth mindset will find a great opportunity to participate in change.

T-shaped Skills
In a team, each team member operates with his or her strengths, which could be specialized knowledge, skills, and capabilities in a given area. While this is very efficient in the short-term, when the team members continue to operate within their silos, they inadvertently encourage localized thinking, create a very low ownership of end-toend tasks, and a disproportionately high dependency on individuals.

On the other hand, when individuals move away from their comfort zone and acquire capabilities in adjoining areas and become more “T-shaped”, they create shared competencies and a much higher mutual empathy with other team members. They also improve their own problem-solving capabilities because they are thinking of aspects other than their own, leading to better collaboration at the team level. Acquiring a growth mindset enables an individual to become a wellrounded “T-shaped” individual who can comprehend the big picture, which allows them to help others better.

Help Others
Most organizations mimic an arena where gladiators fight each other, where the only way to survive is to kill others! While this might be a gory analogy of a modern workplace, our outdated performance management systems actually make us do just that. A bell curve for a team engaged in knowledge discovery will only end up destroying team spirit. While individuals might not (yet) have the clout to change organizational performance systems, they can challenge the myth of competition within a team by choosing to collaborate instead. Helping others would be a great way to get started.

Helping others also creates an obligation to reciprocate, which is a key influencing factor as per Robert Cialdini, a leading expert on this subject. This establishes a system of gifts and reciprocation, which is the essence of social relationships, and helps foster trust, respect, and collaboration. This sets the foundation for winning teams.

Make the Team Win
Imagine you are part of a football team. Each player has been hired due to his skills – striker, defender, goalkeeper, etc. Based on the opponent’s strengths and potential game plan, the coach might come up with a field formation at the time of kick-off. However, as the game progresses, new facts emerge that might invalidate some of those assumptions. He might rotate players or redeploy them in a different way.

While a team might be formed based on individual strengths and configured in a fixed formation, in the real world, a winning team would adapt itself to a fluid formation. Their T-shaped skills allow them to be useful to the team in more ways than one, and their trust and respect for each other enable them to leave their fixed positions and play a winning game.

Take Initiative
Each one of us possesses many strengths. We come up with new ideas everyday about making things better. However, most of these ideas die a silent death because we don’t take any initiative in making or validating them. In my experience, more people fail (and ultimately get fired) for not taking an initiative than for making mistakes.

When you have a great team that wins, it also builds the right environment where people are not afraid of taking an initiative. They know that if they fail, their team members have their back. Those who take initiative almost invariably understand the ground situations much better than others, and build the right rapport with leaders that allows them to exercise influence to make the change succeed.

Conclusions In today’s world, a leader can’t simply demand change from her team. She must build the right conditions where team members are constantly encouraged to drive change in a non-intimidating environment, and build relationships that allow them to harness the social energy that is needed to make any change successful.

A leader must also change her own mindset that individuals will simply follow the change. If the leader recognizes that individuals have immense power to lead the change at their respective levels, the leader can not only lead to more successful change but also create a long-lasting and self-sustaining culture of participation, ownership, and engagement.

(Tathagat Varma is a published author and speaker. He brings over 25 years of experience in building software products, and helps organizations improve in areas of strategy, agility, innovation, and leadership.)
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