Have you ever been completely lost in a foreign city? Can’t read the signs, no idea what direction you are facing, and no one around who can point the way?
Staying still will rarely get you un-lost, and even choosing a direction that is wrong is a step to finding the right way. You have to move forward, knowing that even slow progress is still progress. One time in Egypt I even physically closed my eyes, picked a direction and willed my feet to get moving.
There are many times when those in an organisation want to change, NEED to change, but are not exactly sure what they are changing into. What do you do when you don’t know where you’re heading?
Clearing ambiguity requires persistence, determination and motivation.
For people, ambiguity can be comfortable. Staying in ambiguity allows us to hold off change and covert resistance to take hold. It’s the ‘devil you know’ syndrome – what we have now, no matter how unclear or frustrating, is not nearly as scary as what may happen when we have a goal. We may then have to do something about it, and what if we fail?
From my experience, there are at least 4 proven ways you can begin to crystallise change, allowing us to drive it in times of ambiguity. These may not be new ideas, and in reflection could be a practical reminder in case you may have lost some of your own drive along the way. It happens. In our roles we must be able to re-energise ourselves, hit the reset button and keep going through the fog.
Do some change stretching exercises. If you have only a vague idea of what the change is, then warm up how you want to go about doing it so you are ready for a sprint. Begin by identifying stakeholders who may be affected, may have a decision making role, or will need to be informed. Identify internal and external groups, individuals, and think about how they will need to be engaged. Develop a plan to do so.
Another stretching exercise is defining the change process – how you want to go about making the change happen. Will you have a network of existing business people, will you bring in a team from outside, will you do it all yourself? How would you work, what kinds of things would you need to do? This can be built on the stakeholder identification work, as once you know how many stakeholders are involved, a picture of the change effort required to manage them becomes clear. Draft an early terms of reference and take it and your stakeholder management plan to the decision makers for approval.
Test your own hypotheses. If you know who the sponsors of the change will be (the decision makers who will legitimise and role model the change), take the initiative and dream up 3 end state hypotheses of your own and take those to them. At the very least, you will spark the conversation, capture thinking and if you are superbly clever, nudge along some next steps.
Document. Nothing sparks people’s engagement like writing things down and talking to them about it. There is a predictable human acceptance that once things are documented they become true (even if you do have ‘draft’ all over it). Begin by lightly documenting what you think are the change objectives, who will be involved, what the scope and impacts are, what risks will need to be managed, rough activities and resources to do so. Take it to your sponsors and before you know it, there’s a version 2 that is accepted!
Clarify urgency and create a timeline. Deadlines get the blood pumping and provide multiple points at which to review progress. I have often created a ‘burning platform’ by trawling old internal documentation, strategy reports, newspaper articles or email exchanges. Change must have a reason ‘why’ for it to be taken seriously by stakeholders, and that ‘why’ must be strong and urgent enough to galvanise action.
Often when you have clarified the urgency, a timeline will naturally fall out of it, or at least an agreed end timeframe at which something will have changed. Go back to point 2, come up with some hypotheses of what the end state could look like, document as per point 3, add in the work you did with stakeholders on point 1, and … miracle, the ambiguity starts to clear.
The above tips are simple and non-threatening ways to take hold of a situation and drive clarity. Add to that your skill in managing conversations, providing options and creating momentum, and watch the ambiguity fade away while the future becomes clear.
Cindy Bush is the co-author of “Project Managing Change: Practical Tools and Techniques to Make Change Happen”, Ira Blake & Cindy Bush, FT Prentice Hall 2009.
The above tips and other tools are available in Project Managing Change, and having led numerous projects ourselves, we know how busy it can get. That’s why we have created a set of downloadable change management templates for you to use so you can focus on the value-added stuff. You can find these here.
Bio: Cindy Bush has worked internationally leading change in the financial, media, telecommunications, retail and public sectors. She is best known for driving strategic change, achieving results in complex and resistant organisations. She is currently leading a multi-year transformation programme at a large UK broadcaster.