Know why you want to change- A climbing lesson

I took up climbing right around the time I began working in change communication. Over the past months both subjects have been demanding my time and interest more and more.

Change management articles in the day. Everest and Eiger documentaries in the evening. They were bound to clash at some point. And they did, while I was stood at the bottom of a climbing wall, belaying for a friend who was halfway up.

With the weather looking like it’s beginning to turn, we’d started to think about outdoor climbing for spring and summer. With the El Capitan climb still fresh in our minds thanks to media coverage, extravagant dreams about attempts and expeditions were the talk of the night. The day had been spent thinking about better ways to engage management in change. And it was the notion of ‘sponsorship’ that struck me, as it occurs in both worlds with some striking parallels.

From there, I couldn’t help but tie more and more elements together (I kept an eye on my friend, don’t worry) and so I decided they’d make a good series of posts.So, let’s get to it.

Know why you want to climb

Question what is driving this idea of organisational change. Why do you want to change? Why do you need to change?

There are a whole host of reasons for change and what they are can and will affect the change process and your best strategy for both managing and leading it.

Like climbing expeditions, change initiatives on an organisational level are pretty big undertakings. In fact they’re massive in some cases and shouldn’t be taken lightly. Being blase about it will see a very short trip, an unnecessarily drawn out slog or plain disaster. So why are you doing it?

‘Need’ to change

Is it to meet rapidly changing market demands? A big industry shake up? Lethal competition? Declining sales and market position? These type of reasons can be grouped under a common heading; threat.

Yet, despite their unpleasantness, these serious and immediate threats are undeniably great for shaking up management and the workforce as livelihoods come under threat. Quibbles are far outweighed by the understanding that things have to change in order to survive.

The climbing analogy here is clear- if we don’t make it to a better position now, that storm is going to wipe us off the face.

But threats aren’t the only reason for choosing change…

‘Want’ to change

People climb for all sorts of benevolent reasons; to get in shape, to improve their skill set, to try something different, to be social, to go bigger than their last climb etc. It’s something they want to do. Organisations and the people that lead them can have just the same outlook. They want to get the business leaner, in better shape, improve their quality, change their culture for the greater good, expand into new markets or simply grow. All noble intentions.

However, these kind of reasons come with a lack of urgency so intrinsic to threats. There’s a lot to be said for staying indoors at base camp. It’s warm. It’s comfortable. It doesn’t take much effort to remain there and it feels like a good alternative to all that effort it takes to get up the mountain and maybe even get into trouble. Besides, there’s coffee down here. The status quo in a business can often have a similarly adhesive quality about it for a lot of people.

It’s the difference between convincing fellow climbers to join you on an attempt at Everest and asking strangers off the street to pack up some gear and meet you at the airport.

Some will be game straight away i.e. the thrill seekers. Some will be open to the idea and will come round with some prodding from either their own mind or yourself, building in their enthusiasm. Others will swear they’d love to but will never get round to it. They’ll probably forget they were ever asked. Some will scoff and call you crazy or stupid. Some will get angry, for a variety of personal reasons you may never understand. A lot will try to ignore you intruding on their day and get back to whatever it is they’re doing.

So unless you’re lucky enough to be surrounded by a workforce whose attitude towards change, innovation and improvement is innately positive, you may have some work on your hands when it comes to leading and managing the charge.

Why you need to know your reasons

Short of threatening a sacking for failing to toe the line, reasons for why you’re changing are essential to know because they are the basis for all motivation for action. Leaders need to keep them in mind when change is underway to keep them on track and momentum going (especially during rough patches). And employees need to know exactly why they’re being asked to do things differently if they’re to trust management and expend more of their already precious energy.

Your reasons need to be compelling. For both yourself and those you’re asking to follow behind.

Idle fancy is for gentle strolls. Not serious climbs.