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Why It Makes Sense for Managers to Go Slow to Go Fast

Susan Cramm

Susan Cramm, leadership coach, author, and former CFO and CIO, is committed to the principle that the best leaders take care of business by taking care of the people entrusted to their care.



January, and the New Year, inevitably bring resolutions of change, particularly regarding work and productivity. But change can be painful and difficult. As a leadership coach, I find it heartbreaking when the promises of change unfulfilled demoralize people and create the cynicism that breeds inertia-plagued organizations.

A strategy+business article published nearly ten years ago —  “The Neuroscience of Leadership,” by David Rock and Jeffrey Schwartz — has helped me and my clients understand why change is so difficult and how to improve change management practices. “Large-scale behavior change requires a large-scale change in mental maps,” they write. And it requires “some kind of event or experience that allows people to provoke themselves, in effect, to change their attitudes and expectations more quickly and dramatically than they normally would.”

In thinking about change, I like to use a simple three-part framework: capturing attention, securing approval, and orchestrating adoption. Like any simplifying framework, this has limitations. But it has one primary benefit: It emphasizes the need to go slow to go fast. What do I mean? Investing sufficient time and effort to gain attention and secure approval will increase the likelihood that organizations will adopt change. Rushing through these first two steps in order to get to the active part of change is tempting. And it is often one of the reasons the promise of change remains unfulfilled.

The utility of this approach can be illustrated by a case study of successful change at the Irvine Company, a California-based real estate company and master planner best known for creating sustainable communities that include housing, office and retail centers, schools, recreation areas, and permanently preserved open space. The change called for transitioning the 5,000-person employee base from the Microsoft platform to the Google Apps for Work productivity suite, beginning with calendar and mail. All employees made the change, on the same day, with calm finesse. Here’s how the Irvine Company used the framework to get their results.

Capturing attention. It’s difficult to capture attention in the world in which we live and work. To be noticed and heard, you need to tell a simple, important, and captivating story. Our brains think — and remember — in stories, and there is evidence that great stories foster the motivation to change.

A great story uses characters and emotional tension to describe an important opportunity, a plan, and a call to action. In announcing the shift in platforms, the Irvine Company did not pitch the evident challenges of extending the use of current technology. Instead, it focused on a vision for the future, the collaborative needs of the evolving workplace and workforce, and the tangible benefits of the move, such as the opportunity to accelerate information access and decision making. In other words, instead of describing a problem that needed to be solved, the company told a positive story. If you aren’t sure that you have a story that resonates, consider sketching it out using Daniel Pink’s Pixar pitch format, share the draft, and invite people to help make it better. Doing so will capture colleagues’ attention, give them the dopamine rush that comes from making insights, and enlist them as coauthors of the change. Early on in the inception phase, the Irvine Company’s IT department solicited input from employees about their productivity needs and used this information to share the vision of what was possible with company leaders.

Securing approval. Gaining approval requires taking the story and making it personal to each constituency. While every organization has a few “formal” approvers, it also has many informal potential disapprovers. As a result, the support of senior management is a necessary but not sufficient condition for successful change. Gaining approval — up, down, and across — requires that everyone who needs to change must articulate his or her personal business case for doing so. Because it can be difficult to design and implement a change that is “net positive” across the board, articulating how the change benefits customers can be useful in tipping the balance.

While every organization has a few “formal” approvers, it also has many informal potential disapprovers.

From the inception of its shift, the Irvine Company’s IT group conducted the product evaluations, road shows, and pilots in an open-book manner, encouraging conversations that facilitated discussion of real business benefits and potential downsides. These conversations led to a decision to limit the scope of the first-stage change to a common core (i.e., email and calendaring) rather than to attempt to resolve the issues involved with transitioning everyone to the full product suite. This effort to gain approval increased the likelihood of success, user readiness, and positive momentum to fuel further change.

Orchestrating adoption. Proceeding deliberately and carefully through the attention and approval phases will help increase the likelihood of successful adoption. With the spade work done, the adoption phase will proceed at a faster rate as long as it focuses on helping people rewire their brains and create new work habits. Nobody can persuade someone to change; he or she has to decide to want to change. Being able to ask questions that help people think deeply and develop new insights that motivate them to learn new behaviors is a crucial skill. Most of us ask questions like a defense attorney (for example, “Isn’t it true that Google is a better productivity platform?”) when instead we should listen, learn, and build a collective pool of knowledge and action.

The Irvine Company orchestrated adoption by limiting the scope of the change, branding the initiative to keep the value top of mind, and then providing robust assistance throughout the learning process. It rolled out “Next Lounges” (places where people could touch and feel the technology), deployed “Google Guides” (superusers trained to provide one-on-one support), and sent the IT employees to other departments to provide in-person support if needed. 

The Irvine Company successfully transitioned productivity platforms because it treated the change as a people project rather than a technology project. By doing so, the company helped employees provoke change in themselves by following the framework of (1) capturing their imagination about the future of their work, (2) gaining their approval by giving them the opportunity to define their personal “business case,” and (3) orchestrating the adoption of new behaviors through focused change and hands-on learning.

This process may take a little longer. But the payoff is worth the effort.


Why It Makes Sense for Managers to Go Slow to Go Fast