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This chapter is from the book

Creating Safe Passage—A Clear Transformation Process

Before leaving this introduction to ACT, we want to highlight the importance of its first step, “Creating Safe Passage.”

The first key to effectively launching a tight corporate transformation game plan is to make sure that everyone understands the path that will be followed and how and where they fit in. It is fun to say that “we need a burning platform” to get people moving. It sounds decisive. You might get people scrambling out of fear, but that is not the kind of energy you need to create to be successful.

Before “lighting the fire,” you need to make sure that there is a clear and safe passage from the state of things today to the new state or strategic direction. Safe passage does not mean that 100% of the people will keep their jobs or that all budgets will remain intact. Everyone knows and understands the realities of making tough trade-offs to refocus a business. So, above all, be honest if there are these types of tough decisions that will need to be made. All that is expected by your team is that you lay out a very clear process architecture that shows a few critical steps: who will make decisions, when and how people will have input into the decisions, when you will announce final answers, and what will happen as these decisions are made.

There is one qualifier to the term “safe passage” from the perspective of motivating a whole organization to drive the effort. It is not enough to simply lay out your process in advance. Your process needs to be specifically designed for speed and high engagement to be received well and to work. In addition, it is better to set a purposeful “burning ambition” as the motivator to change. Rather than running away from the past based on fear, the idea is to build such a compelling shared purpose and reason for being as a business that employees are magnetized and drawn down the transformation path to pursue the new.

Many processes don’t have both the speed and high-engagement elements covered. The typical belief is that to get speed, you can’t spend time on communications and dialogue. While under the gun by a board or boss to quickly focus an organization on a new strategic path, it can seem too messy and time consuming to get too many people involved. However to generate a burning ambition in the team necessary to engage fully and continue driving the transformation, it is required. Strategy is not done by consensus, that’s true, but it can be done quickly with high engagement. As is typically the case with shortcuts like speeding past engaging the right people up front, things actually end up taking longer because of repeated revisits of past decisions, continued questioning, lack of alignment, and rework. With the right process for engagement up front and leverage of proper technology such as crowd-sourcing and enterprise social media platforms, execution actually goes faster and farther in the end.

A story of a new leader who had been placed in such a position comes to mind. Like many new leaders, he was charged with rapidly turning around the performance of his organization. As a first pass, he and one other executive gathered for a few days with an external consultant to the business and hammered out the new strategy for the company. It was bold, well worded, and to the point. He gathered his VP team to share the document and to get some feedback from them before rolling it out to the entire company.

As he finished reading out the new strategy, the room was absolutely silent. This was uncharacteristic for the hard-driving and outspoken team of executives. He said later that it was one of the worst meetings he recalled being in. He tugged at each of the VPs to obtain a few slight changes to some words, but clearly nobody had any energy or excitement. In fact, they seemed completely disinterested. The team left quietly when the meeting was over. This was the impact of trying to change the direction of the company without the engagement of the right players within the leadership team. It certainly was fast to gather just three people to hammer out the document, but the Senior Leadership Team had no ownership, didn’t believe that the right things were considered, and assumed no accountability for making it better. They were being asked to “buy in” to something that they should have been included in building up front.

From there, the leader moved quickly to launch the new strategy through various corporate events and communications, but the people’s reception was similar at all levels. Following several months of lackluster execution, the executive team decided to double-back to engage the organization in the strategy development process. Not surprisingly, the result was the complete opposite. The engagement effort re-energized the executive team, who began talking with each other about the business, departmental silos began to disappear, and enthusiasm for the future rebounded radically. As one of the executives put it, “People went from feeling like defeatists back into thinking we could win.”

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