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S. Bala  |  05/03/2009

Campaigning for Change—and Winning

Champions of change must master a tricky political two-step.

Delivering systemic change to a large institution requires more than sound organizational reengineering or optimizing the operating process. Change must be identified, energized, and directed. Potentially sympathetic but undecided hearts and minds must be won, and opposition, whether open or covert, must be understood, met, and overcome. Ultimately, most stakeholders must see change as not just possible, but preferable to the status quo. To paraphrase a slogan from President Obama’s campaign, large coalitions must be given change they can believe in. In that respect, regardless of what you think of his governing agenda—and thoughtful detractors are legion—it’s hard to argue with Obama’s success in campaigning for change he believes in.

Regardless if it is focused on a multinational corporation or a sprawling federal bureaucracy, winning a mandate to make change demands mastery of a softer science than statistical process control. For a business environment, political appeals to common and competing interests of the upper, middle, and working classes are tailored to clothe the concerns of the C-suite, cubicle crowd, and line worker. Managing consensus among these diverse stakeholders can be an awkward task for Six Sigma devotees who prefer to let impartial data do the talking. Like any politician, a change champion must perform a deft two-step that reconciles what inside experts (the policy wonks) recommend vs. what average employees (the voters) are willing to back.

Wired into consensus building

More than any other factor, the institutional culture that employees aggregately create—and by which they’re collectively influenced—drives organizational behavioral and thereby systemic change. Thankfully, the flatter, well-wired structure of the 21st-century global enterprise allows change agents to actively attend to consensus building, that most democratic of chores, in ways previously impossible. As Obama’s Netroots proved, the top of any modern campaign apparatus need never operate far from its bottom. More to the point, because any organization’s rank-and-file can now make its presence speedily and directly felt at every level, winning the confidence of that voting bloc is required. Critical questions about this group’s tolerance to change must be explored early. By what baseline criteria will success be measured, and how will that definition affect the fortunes of those on the front line with the power to realize a desired change? Without answers to those questions, and plans that acknowledge the limits of tolerance to change, the most brilliant battle strategy can degenerate into a lost cause where unmotivated conscripts half-heartedly fight an entrenched old-guard resistance.

If that metaphor seems to have strayed onto military ground, remember the oft-quoted axiom that “politics is war by other means.” An effective organizational change-management effort must be viewed as a “political campaign by other means.” Right now, in fact, managers of change initiatives are in an ideal position to co-opt the Obama administration’s maxim, “Never let a crisis go to waste.” Interestingly, Ronald Reagan established a precedent for this tack during the early 1980s when he used comparably dour economic conditions to press for a quite different brand of change. Today, as then, companies in most economic sectors have been forced to cut costs and staff, and reorganize. Those that have survived so far know that rough-and-tumble change is upon them. They’ve accepted that the future may be worse for them than the present, but (it’s hoped) not for long. If anything, the idea of continued uncertainty is more troubling than knowing what lies ahead, however difficult it looks—which is why the sooner the organization’s destination for change is identified, and a path to it mapped, the sooner a majority can be moved to consensus.

As it was during the harsh recession of 1981, today’s general destination is economic recovery. Reagan sold his pathway there as a darkest-before-the-dawn return to “Morning in America.” Obama, acknowledging the complexity of our current problems, strikes a more cautiously optimistic note. The hard walk ahead can be made, he says, with “persistence” and the “audacity of hope.” The lesson for all change messengers: When outlining where you want to go with a Six Sigma, lean, change acceleration, or continuous-improvement initiative, you must be upbeat yet calm and clear-eyed. Cheerleaders, those who oversell the upside of change while remaining blind to its downside, need not apply. Better to pronounce, as Reagan did, that the time has come to “drain the swamp,” or challenge us, as Obama did, that we “pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again.”

The strategy

Plainspoken messages such as these, or some equally candid yet motivational equivalent, can help you to implement hard-fought changes in your company. They recognize the importance of well-
managed expectation. Moreover, they implicitly concede that however much you believe it will all turn out well in the end, big change is always scary at the outset. As noted author James Baldwin observed, “The future is like heaven—everyone exalts it, but no one wants to go there now.” The key is to continually point to the better place on the horizon as you ready the anxious to pay the heavy tolls that await them along the route. Once all stakeholders have a common understanding of the roadblocks to change, and the plan for moving over, through, or around them, the organization can establish and promote supportable criteria for measuring success.

When a change-management effort is launched, it’s critical that it be backed, if not outright led, by someone who’s respected and admired—even and perhaps especially by those who don’t necessarily agree with that respected individual. What’s needed is a transcendent figure who gradually builds support beyond the hardcore, snowballing it from plurality, to majority, to supermajority. Reagan and Obama both did this by winning independents and even sizable slices of support from their opponent’s ideological base. Notably, so-called Reagan Democrats and Obama Republicans were inclined to personally like their presidential choice’s leadership style even on occasions when his position on an issue was their polar opposite.

Your champion need not be the most senior executive in the area where the change is taking place. But he or she should at least have early, high-profile endorsements from the CEO, chief operating officer, and chief financial officer. Indeed, without the support of these key figures, there’s little point to launching a campaign. The modern global enterprise may be structured more democratically than its 1950s antecedent, but it remains a throwback in that a nod from the bosses behind the scene remains vital. Until it’s clear where the C-suite and its lieutenants plan to steer the political machine, the undecided will never move your way. This is where a “war of other means” must turn up the heat. The battle lines of any change campaign must be drawn so that anyone with material influence on the outcome feels that he or she can’t afford to sit out the campaign. The apathetically neutral must see how success—or, alternately, failure—will affect them. Outcomes must be sharply defined.

It’s just as important to identify those who have (or think they have) the strongest interest in stopping change. This is the hardcore opposition, and there’s little gained from trying to win it over. In a war of attrition the endgame is to outlast the opponent as you atrophy its base. Or, with the support of the “bosses,” eliminate it from the field of contention before the campaign begins. This is an opportunity to end a battle before it begins by negotiating terms for change that a healthy plurality of principals can peaceably accept. The political process here is one of shuttle diplomacy. Representatives of key constituencies may spend several weeks pursuing a détente by hearing the views of team members and other reps at the table. As a change campaign moves into politicking for broader majority support, it’s important for the loyal base to begin to identify who’s a passive supporter, a neutral bystander, a passive resister, or an active combatant. After that, your campaign for victory relies on moving passive supporters to active ones, converting neutral bystanders to passive supporters, and flipping passive resisters to neutral bystanders. This shift isolates active combatants and degrades their ability to wage serious opposition.

A marathon of momentum

You can also co-opt some positions from the opposing side, as electoral campaigns do, provided it doesn’t corrupt the change you’re promising and damage solidarity within your base. Done right, it will produce a larger, if more fragile, majority coalition. Compromise must be considered in the context of what can be gained by shrinking or dissolving your opposition. Where compromise makes sense, a formerly neutral party may be an ideal choice to broker it. A broker should gently lead opponents to recognize that change can be delayed but no longer denied, that the partial victory of compromise is now their only winning option.

Campaigns must also be sensitive to how strenuously top officers, who were initially supportive, will be in pressing for change over time. CEOs and their ilk get where they are by constantly stepping back to assess the larger political picture so as not to overreach. They understand intuitively a formula on the whiteboards of many lean Six Sigma managers: Quality × Acceptance = Effectiveness. Reaching for changes beyond the natural limits of an established culture’s acceptance can put your strongest supporters in a precarious spot. Quality is a noble cause. However, pursued to an extreme that outstrips critical levels of acceptance, it turns a credible change campaign into a quixotic bid.

A change campaign, like the military and political kinds, has a long life. When run like the marathon it is, there are fewer missteps. Though steady in pacing, this is still a challenger’s campaign that must, by nature, be relentlessly aggressive. Without the advantages of incumbency, those who wage it must maintain an offensive tempo that their opposition lacks. Greater acceptance of risk means greater acceptance of temporary setbacks. Typically, though, the serious stumbles you do have are ones from which victory remains quite salvageable. In the battle for hearts and minds, early losses must be anticipated based on the opposition’s size and the strength of its resolve. The nature of the political front then dictates the contingencies’ plans for figuring when and how to reengage. For example, is the ground a strategic must-win? If not, would taking it add to the momentum of winning more support to your side? Is the position under contest more important to the opposition than you? If so, how would its eventual conquest deaden resistance and speed your successful arrival at the campaign’s final destination?

Not for the timid

However you answer those questions, remember: If you don’t plan for some initial failure, you’re planning for certain failure. You don’t ignore or avoid opposition to your agenda. You identify and study its strengths and weaknesses. You outflank it where necessary. You win worthy combatants to your side where conceivable. And, when confronted by those who won’t stand down, you neutralize their power and marginalize their influence. This isn’t a task for the timid. This is political consensus-building. At best, it embodies the ancient Greek democratic ideal of spirited debate about how best to govern. At worst, it resembles Greek tragedy where knives are drawn on those who foolishly presume the power to change is endowed rather than earned.

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