By Laurie Tarpey, CPA, Senior Manager in Raffa, P.C.’s Managed Accounting Practice
Do you find that when you’re facing a challenge similar to one you’ve seen before, you think you know exactly what to do? Maybe your manager told you what she thinks the problem is and its cause, so you’re ready to swoop in with a solution. Or maybe because of your leadership role, you think you need to have all the answers right away.
When I did a Google search on change management, I got 470 million hits including links to Harvard Business Review, Forbes, Accenture and Amazon books. There are complex theories, models, “keys to” and case studies.
I think the most powerful way to begin is by listening.
What I learned from my grandmother
A number of years ago, my grandmother bumped her head in a fall and was confined to a hospital bed for over a week. To maintain leg strength, a physical therapist gave her a series of exercises. I kept encouraging her to do them. I stood next to her bed and “coached” her through the routine. At one point she got exasperated and said, “Laurie! Stop bossing me!” There was a pause…and then we both burst out laughing. But she was right. She knew she’d been told to do the exercises. But it wasn’t enough to make her do them. I’d considered nothing about her motivations (as an elderly woman), whether she had questions about what to expect (pain? pace of progress?), or whether she even wanted my help doing them.
Listen when you have no clue about the process you’re overseeing
A CEO once assigned me oversight of a manager and a creative workflow process that seemed outside my finance wheelhouse. The manager running the process was initially dismayed. She thought that assigning the controller to supervise her and the process was “kind of random.” I kind of agreed. But our CEO thought I was good at process management. So there we were.
I told the manager that she was the subject matter expert. My first priority was to learn the process flow from her, and then to hear her thoughts on what was and wasn’t working. Turns out she had several frustrations with the current process, including noncompliance. And she had some great ideas on how to revamp it. She also thought she needed a company leader to champion her. So we agreed we’d ask our chief of creative services, a highly respected guy with the creative team and a big fan of hers, to help us.
Our next step was for the manager herself to listen. She asked her colleagues what was getting in their way of compliance. She asked them if they were aware that noncompliance caused hiccups in her ability to meet their quality and time goals. She asked for the changes they’d like, and their feedback on her proposed changes. She then incorporated what she’d heard into a redesigned process that the creative chief and I introduced, and she presented. It turned out to be a big improvement.
If I hadn’t started with listening, I wouldn’t have established credibility with her, nor learned of her great ideas and obstacles. If she hadn’t listened, she wouldn’t have gotten buy-in along the way, nor reflected her colleagues’ good ideas in the final process.
Listen when the apparent problem might not be the real problem
Another time, I was asked to lead revising a budget process that had been causing widespread frustration. The problem was thought to be insufficient training with our relatively new budget software. I had just joined the organization and knew little about the software besides its strong reputation.
So my first instinct was to listen and learn. I attended regular finance and operational team meetings, and asked staff what was causing them “heartburn” in the current process. My staff and I asked for each person’s wish list. If each could have improvements in our procedures and software, what would they look like? We ultimately learned that the problems were less with the software and more with our process. There was confusion about roles and responsibilities. There was also a lack of understanding about the importance of meeting interim deadlines in the budget process to allow time for the important back-and-forth between operations and finance. Some items on the wish list were technically infeasible. Others were solvable with a short training session. We incorporated all the feedback into a restructured process that included clear roles and responsibilities, a budget “help desk,” software “tips and tricks” and a collaboratively designed timetable.
The revised process was, as one person said, “1,000 times better.” If I’d jumped in with just software training instead of listening, we wouldn’t have solved the real problems with the process, and we’d have missed an opportunity to strengthen the partnership between the operating and finance teams.
Listen with empathy
Feel the other person’s grief. It shows respect. Besides being decent (obviously), it’s practical. You can’t change a process alone. People are more motivated to create change with you when they know you feel their pain and respect it.
Listen with imagination
Put yourself in the other person’s place. Imagine: if I were experiencing these hassles, what would I want to change and how? Then ask the other person whether that sounds right. Listen, and re-imagine. And ask again. Process issues can be complex and nuanced. It can be tough to identify just what’s at the root. You need to probe beyond the first complaints to truly understand the problems, and therefore the opportunities.
When my colleagues and I are struggling to understand the real problem or we can’t fathom the fix, I often find it helpful to ask people to start with the dream. In their biggest dream, what would success look like from their point of view and in their day-to-day work? We can always whittle our way back to the reality of what is possible. But it can help to start with the ideal.
Listen with fairness
Some people are vocal. Some people suffer in silence. You need to hear from everyone involved in a process to develop the most effective changes. Be thankful for the vocal people – they highlight problems and therefore opportunities. But make a point to ask your quieter colleagues for their feedback on what’s working and isn’t, and their ideas for possible improvements.
My grandmother has passed on. I loved her dearly and am grateful to her for many things, including her admonishment to stop bossing her. It reminds me to ask and listen first.
What do you think? What has been important for you in change management?