In the book ‘Difficult Conversations‘ written by members of the Harvard Negotiation Group, the authors state: “We believe a major reason change efforts so often fail is that successful implementation eventually requires people to have difficult conversations. The ability to manage difficult conversations effectively is foundational to achieving almost any significant change.”
It is quite true that real change – either personal or at the level of an organization always require to address existing issues in an open and straightforward manner, while making sure the people involved still listen. It is about holding the adequate tough conversations. And it is unfortunately rare to find people who have the skill and courage to hold these conversations.
The authors add: “With everyone taking for granted that their own view is right, and readily assuming that others’ opposition is self-interested, progress quickly grinds to a halt. Decisions are delayed, and when finally made they are often imposed without buy-in from those who have to implement them. Relationships sour. Eventually people give up in frustration, and those driving the effort get distracted by new challenges or the next next big thing.” Such is the recipe for failure of change efforts.
Don’t follow this recipe; instead, learn to hold difficult conversations in an effective and productive way. In a few minutes you can change people, one by one; or the entire world if needed.
In many natural science domains, we increasingly become conscious that in nature, 95%+ of the change we observe comes from short and intense phenomena such as storms, floods, earthquakes.
For example in the study of erosion, rivers shapes and material that is then transported by rivers such as boulders, it is very clear that rare storms and floods are the main contributors to the shaping of the riverbed (and sometimes, to the destruction of some man-made structures that tempted to tame it). While most textbooks still present erosion as the continuous work of air and water over millenniums, in reality, most of the work has been done during much shorter periods -days- of intense flow.
It does similarly happen in the world that surrounds us. Most of the changes come from unpredictable, short and intense moments, which we often call crisis (or also, in the field of society, revolutions). Crisis create the conditions for re-shaping our society, our economy, our organizations. Our duty is to protect ourselves and our loves ones against those crisis, and also to take advantage of them when they happen – because ultimately it is those rare events that shape our environment.
When it comes to achieving results, it is more important to put the right effort at the right moment than to row continuously up to exhaustion.
That is what I learnt when I was lucky enough a few weeks ago to experience rafting in the Alps mountains. How does that work? You let yourself flow down a torrential river on some air filled rubber raft. As a beginner, you have to follow the orders of an experienced helmsman.
The way it worked was very instructive: most of the time we just let ourselves be taken by the flow (which was a very pleasurable moment); only at determined moments was decisive effort required to maneuver in rapids, in a concerted and quick effort. And even when it came to avoid an obstacle, the point was to strike an effective compromise between effort and letting oneself be pushed by the flow. And all in all, it was more effective to row powerfully at short, decisive moments, than try to row hard all along.
This event was a teambuilding with a client, and as such this was a great learning point for all sorts of organizational change: the point is not to try to try to constantly try to go against the flow, nor to exhaust oneself trying to resist the force of the organization’s natural evolution. The point is to identify the short moments of intense effort that are sufficient to bring the boat to the chosen safe trajectory. It is about knowing that you need to let go most of the time except well chosen, intense moments. Great learning!
“Why do most consulting projects fail? The reason is, processes (read: consultants) don’t normally link the outcomes of the project to the emotional needs of the people involved. How the little things they do, affect other people. This is where organizations with an entrepreneurial mindset have a powerful advantage.” – Hugh MacLeod.
Consultants conventionally come with great rational methods to improve things, and often do fail in their implementation. Because clearly, they don’t touch the heart of people when it comes to changing. And it is not by developing even more rational methods – or putting nice, attractive colors on complicated diagrams – that they will get the required emotional involvement.
The more I am participating to change programs, or execution of projects, the more I realize that emotional connection is the single key that unlocks the potential of organization and enables change.
Do your emotional work first, create meaning, and just use rational methods as a useful support. Don’t do it reverse. That is the recipe for successful change and therefore, successful consulting.