It’s September – Summer holidays are over. Children are back to school. Families are getting back to routines and corporate offices that were quieter in June, July and August with staff rotating on various summer vacations are back. Part of the return to normalcy is signified by leaders returning to strategy and planning for the fall. What have we accomplished so far this year? For those whose year-end is the same as the calendar year-end – what else needs to be accomplished in the last quarter of the year? What strategic change conversations need to be addressed now that had been put off before the summer? Just like the transition between seasons, change is in the air…

I have had the honour of facilitating many a strategic change conversation or meeting at this time of year. From Board governance dialogues to strategic visioning sessions to meetings where the future directions of an organization or system is literally decided. Every one of these conversations are different, depending on the context and questions that must be answered. However, while context matters, I generally have found some core questions invaluable to bringing structure and process to the conversations, especially where the complexity is high.

  1. Why do you need a strategic change?
    • The tendency of many leaders is still to start by focusing on ‘what?’ needs to change / a well-defined change need and on ‘selling’ people on that change. However, when the focus is on the ‘what’ of change and people involved or who will be impacted are not privy to the ‘why,’ the change initiative may be off to a false start. As Simon Sinek has confirmed, through his trending TedTalk and ongoing work, why must be the first question as it establishes the purpose and inspiration for a change. The key however is that the purpose must be a shared one for the change to be successful. Therefore the ‘why’ or the need for change must be solicited not just from leadership teams but also from those who stand to be impacted by the change.
  2. What is negotiable and non-negotiable about this change?
    • I believe the reason leaders focus on ‘what’ before why is because there is often a non-negotiable element to a required strategic shift. However, I find that this is not always made explicit and leaders often hold the belief that since something is non-negotiable, they cannot open up discussions with their people about why the required change is needed, in case people push against it anyway. However, since my early career when a mentor introduced me to negotiables and non-negotiables I have found it to be one of the most valuable strategic change conversations to have in planning. And in my experience, non-negotiables are just that – they are non-negotiable and people understand that. In most cases, people still need to understand and connect to the ‘why’ behind what is non-negotiable so that they can take shared responsibility in supporting the negotiable elements of strategic change. However, I have found that people will question a non-negotiable if it really is a negotiable in disguise, in cases where leaders are trying to ‘push’ their own agenda. Therefore, this conversation can be a complex one to facilitate through. Leaders and leadership teams must stay open to what is negotiable being truly negotiable – meaning, those impacted really do have the power to influence/lead how negotiable elements of change unfold.
  3. What form might the strategic change take?
    • Once the above 2 questions have been adequately answered, I have found a more important ‘what’ question than ‘what is the change,’ is: What form might the strategic change take to address the change need? This may sound like a simple nuance and an unnecessary complication of the original question, but it is the difference between presenting people with a negotiable versus a non-negotiable and signalling the type of approach or philosophy the leaders have towards change. A frequently asked question (FAQ) or Q+A release that answers: What is the change? signals the change has already been decided and people have no choice but to follow/implement accordingly. What form might the change take invites people to be participants in defining the change. This is a fundamental shift that leads to the next question.
  4. How will people be engaged to accomplish the change?
    • This question applies when leaders are open to people defining and being active implementors of change with shared responsibility for successful outcome achievement. Notice the question is not: What is our engagement plan? which is often disguise for a checklist form of ‘engagement’ where the goal is to say we engaged people versus using engagement as a fundamental strategy to accomplish desired change outcomes. Where engaging people in creating the change is the goal, engagement cannot have a ‘plan’ but rather is a loosely defined process that is continuously adapted as more issues/questions/possibilities for successful change outcome achievement are discovered along the way. See my previous post here for some comments about engaging people in change.
  5. How will we know when we are successful?
    • With this question, I often ask leaders to slow down before racing to create measurable goals and expectations that often provide little inspiration for people to engage in making the change happen and examine sub questions like: what the climate/culture of success also looks like. And what sustainable change looks like. And yes, goal achievement is required and important and sustainability may seem like an overused word, but have you ever experienced a change implementation where the goals are achieved…only for a short time and then there’s regression? Or one where the goals are achieved on paper but other indicators of your organization’s success regress or new ‘people’ concerns emerge? In general, this tends to happen because results accomplishment are ‘driven’ through without due process or attention to the fact that successful outcome achievement must include attention to the culture/context/climate in which the change is nurtured and sustains.

Overall, in conversation with leaders, a fundamental question I ask is whether strategic change is really what they are looking for. I often offer this popularized saying in exploring that: If you want to go fast, go alone, if you want to go far go together. (unattributed/often attributed to ‘Africa’ but specific origins unknown/uncited)