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Starting a Transformation? Don’t Change Everything!

Three conversations that can mobilize your team during a reorganization.

Some time ago, I was consulting a senior director of a government agency who was two years into transforming his organization to be more customer- and results-focused. He had restructured his 200-person team, launched a few key initiatives, coached his staff on changing mind-sets, and made some difficult personnel decisions. Then, just as these investments were beginning to show results, a new governor was elected. His mission? To transform my client’s organization to be more customer- and results-focused! What could the senior director say? “We’re already doing that” would have come across as resistant or worse. He simply sat quietly as his new boss laid out his plans for shaking things up.

As organizations of all types — in both the public and private sectors — strive to be more agile, they reorganize more often. Executives are asked to take on new teams, merge related teams, or pivot to a new set of priorities. Such challenges can be exciting: As a leader, your mind may be buzzing with ideas, questions, and possible solutions. The pressure is on, and you are eager to put “points on the board.”

Yet, for your team, a reorganization may involve a reset as much as a new direction. When things are in flux, people naturally tend to slow down on special initiatives — they don’t want to risk marching in the wrong direction. As new players are assigned, processes can easily become muddled, handoffs dropped, and best practices forgotten. Individuals are not yet familiar with one another’s quirks and talents, and may be feeling the loss of their former teammates.

Moreover, even after you set the direction and clarify roles, your team may still hesitate until they trust that new commitments will persist over time. In a 2014 study of a Fortune 300 company, published by Harvard’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, Kellogg School of Management professor Maryam Kouchaki and I found that employees lost confidence in all major corporate commitments when there was a significant leadership change. Of course, you cannot afford to have your team stuck in a holding pattern. How do you get them mobilized and into action as quickly as possible?

The trick is to recognize that your team is already in motion. In one form or another, initiatives are under way, ideas are being discussed, processes are in place, and relationships have developed. Even if your charter is to radically change course, chances are there is much that you can repurpose or redirect. By taking the time to uncover what is happening on the ground now and affirming explicitly what you want to continue, stop, or start anew, you can dramatically reduce the reset effect. To put this in practice, consider holding three types of conversation early on in your tenure with a new team.

1. The “team story line” conversation. Although it is very tempting to focus only on the future, take some time to learn about your new team’s journey. Ask them: What have been your priorities and goals over the past year? What have you accomplished? What have been the biggest breakthroughs? Where are you focused now? Try drawing the journey of each of your inherited teams or team members on flip charts on a wall. (One team drew their journey as a roller-coaster!) As you listen, you will hear best practices and breakthroughs you can leverage, and you will gain insight into how the team thinks and interacts. In one company in which my colleagues and I ran a two-hour session like this, the new leader reported that it was more valuable than 30 days of orientation.

For your team, a reorganization may involve a reset as much as a new direction.

2. The “new challenge” conversation. This is where you share the larger opportunity or need the team is being asked to address. Get creative, and try to bring this new challenge to life as vividly and concretely as possible, building on what your team already knows and understands. Do they recognize that service needs to improve, but don’t realize by how much? Bring in customers to talk about their experiences. Share benchmark data or go on a field trip or two. Because you know how your team is already thinking, you can focus these experiences on exactly where you want to expand their view and spark new ideas. By starting with the story line above, you can activate your team’s confidence while still being clear about what needs to change. 

3. The “realign the work” conversation. Now, with shared understanding of direction, you and your new team can outline what you need to change in practice. Review your goals, roles, processes, team commitments, and the dashboard of measurements you use to track progress. Then, determine together what you need to continue, stop, or start to deliver. To show you are serious about follow-through and to provide time for people to internalize the change of direction, I suggest having a team off-site followed by a series of weekly working sessions. The working sessions should be long enough to make progress on realigning the work, while allowing time for big-picture questions and getting to know one another. (In general, two to four hours per week for six to eight weeks will work, after which you can shorten the meetings to a one-hour check-in.) Be sure to make time for regular one-on-one meetings so you can get to know each individual and address concerns privately.

As satisfying as it is to generate your own ideas, you and your team will get to results most quickly by tapping into efforts already under way wherever possible. You may be surprised by how flexible your team is if the new focus is clearly articulated in ways that directly relate to their prior goals. For their part, team members can help new leaders by highlighting work they can leverage. For example, the senior director above eventually invited the new governor to review the current initiatives and the impact they were having, then asked his input on how he would like them to be more customer- and results-focused. The new leader was pleased to see so much had already been done, and — rather than reinvent the wheel — could focus his attention on a few clear directives to help the team accelerate progress.

Elizabeth Doty

Elizabeth Doty is a former lab fellow of Harvard University’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, founder of Leadership Momentum, and director of the Erb Institute’s Corporate Political Responsibility Taskforce at the University of Michigan.

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