In Managing At the Speed of Change, Daryl Conner suggests that we each have a baseline level of resilience, that this baseline can be increased through practice and development, and that, as we implement major change initiatives, we can create temporary surges in our own and others’ resilience by applying key principles that reflect our understanding of humans in transition.
The first two articles in this series focus on understanding the elements of resilience and what individuals and leaders can do to build and support it. Here I’d like to focus on the third element in this model: What can we as change agents do to support and enhance human resilience as we execute critical initiatives?
Change Agents are Stewards of Human Energy
When we take on the responsibility of assisting an organization in transition, we are entrusted with a very precious resource: the life force of the humans in that organization. If we do our work well, that energy is multiplied; liberated; freed to flow more effectively. If we do our work poorly, that energy is drained; stuck; used in unproductive ways.
The link to resilience is direct: Change creates turbulence. Humans expend energy to regain equilibrium. The less energy people use to adjust to each change, the more change they can absorb, and—by definition—the more resilient they are. This means that everything change agents do to minimize the level of turbulence, increase the productive flow of energy, and decrease the energy needed to adapt for those involved in change without compromising the effectiveness of the change initiative, raises resilience.
Here’s a list of some of the things that come to mind, with questions to think about for your current project:
Minimize the Level of Turbulence
- Evaluate the level of disruption the change is introducing. What elements of the change are most disruptive to the people involved? Is there a way to reduce the level of disruption without compromising the goals of the change?
- Provide as much direct control as possible. Lack of control is one if the key contributors to disruption. Are there areas where people can have options/choices? How can we involve them in shaping the direction of the change?
- Where direct control is not possible, help people establish accurate expectations (indirect control). Are we communicating clearly, accurately, and honestly what will happen, when, and to whom? Are we trying to artificially protect people from disruption by withholding information?
Increase the Productive Flow of Energy
- Pay attention to the flow of energy. It’s intangible, and can’t easily be quantified, but it can be sensed. Where are we seeing enthusiasm? Momentum? Engagement? Where does energy seem low?
- Tap into individual discretionary energy. When individuals see a path to achieving personally important outcomes (growth, learning, serving a higher purpose, etc.), they can contribute almost unlimited amounts of energy to initiatives that also benefit the organization. Do we understand what outcomes are important to individuals? Can we help them achieve these goals while helping the organization succeed?
- Identify things that are impeding the flow. I like the theory of constraints as a mental model here: Imagine energy as water flowing through a hose. The flow will always be limited (constrained) by blockages, leaks, or narrow places in the hose. Rather than trying to find and fix them all at once, we need to figure out which one is biggest issue, address it, and then look for the next one. What’s our biggest energy blockage or leakage right now? If we could change one thing right now (an unsupportive leader, a lack of resources, etc.) to address this issue, what would it be?
Decrease the Energy Needed to Adapt
When we consciously take each of the personal resilience characteristics (described in more detail in the first article) into account in planning and executing the change, we help each individual engage their change muscles most effectively. In each area, I’ve included one or two sample questions for reflection; I invite you to create and share others as well.
- Positive: The World—Are we viewing and communicating the change, and the reasons for executing it, purely in terms of problems and dangers, or are we seeing and sharing the hope, possibilities, and opportunities that are also present?
- Positive: Yourself—Are we effectively aligning the talents and skills of individuals with the demands of the initiative? Are we helping people see where they have contributions to make?
- Focused—Are we clear about where this change fits within the organization’s overall set of priorities? Are we communicating these priorities to everyone involved so they can align their energy accordingly?
- Flexible: Thoughts—Are we getting out of our own habitual ways of thinking about things? Are we including time and space for people to participate in innovation, creativity, and playfulness as we identify new approaches and solutions?
- Flexible: Social—Are we using collaboration and teams effectively? Are we making it safe for people to ask for support and help from others?
- Organized—Are we creating clear processes and structures to guide us and others through uncertainty? Is everyone clear about what these are and how to use them?
- Proactive—Are we encouraging experimentation and risk-taking? Are we allowing people to learn from mistakes as they move out of their comfort zone and into new ways of operating?
One last thought: I have seen many project teams focus most of their attention on the team itself and the work it is doing while spending far too little time on the people throughout the organization who must shift their mindsets and behaviors to operate in the new environment. It’s certainly important for the team to maintain and enhance its own resilience, because the demands of project execution can be high. But it’s also essential to pay attention to the resilience of the participants/targets/contributors in the change, including leaders at all levels. Their energy is required to achieve sustained success.