For Successful Change Leadership, Emphasize a Culture of Engagement and Accountability

I previously wrote about the challenges that change leaders face as they deal with a “new normal” that is increasingly competitive and volatile. 1The Cost of Program Failure Today there are great opportunities for creating new value streams and bringing them to market more quickly, interacting more meaningfully with customers, and building more collaborative and engaging organizations. At the same time, leaders are pressured to deliver on these opportunities through programs of greater complexity and pace, under heightened uncertainty, and with lower cost.

This environment magnifies the risks to program success, and it exposes weaknesses in an enterprise’s ability to deliver change.  Initiatives often fail because there are too many unanticipated challenges, cross-functional alignment is too difficult to achieve, and teams aren’t able to keep up with shifting requirements and dependencies. Organizations need more robust and nimble approaches to delivering change to successfully execute programs that turn opportunity into real and sustained competitive advantage.

Many leaders focus their improvement efforts on delivery methodology.  They put great effort into mandating, tracking, and standardizing core project management deliverables and training on associated processes.  These tools and methods can improve the efficiency of project execution. However, they don’t resolve the fundamental shortcomings that cause up to 3 out of 4 initiatives to fail.  Project schedules can help teams know what they should be working on, but they don’t motivate them to drive through challenges to getting the work done.  Risk and issue logs raise awareness of obstacles, but they don’t align organizations around hard choices and commitments.  Resource plans highlight where additional capacity is needed, but they don’t ensure that people are focused by setting priorities and removing distractions.

Even more than better tools, successful change relies on real engagement and accountability. Often, sponsors are too busy to participate meaningfully in their programs, managers point fingers at each other, and team members look for ways to divert responsibility.  In contrast, high performing organizations create cultures of accountability in which people feel responsible for doing everything they can to further strategic priorities.  An individual’s role or level is less important than their contribution.  This kind of environment can result in an emphasis on delivery over efficiency since teams will be working toward overlapping goals.  The payoff, however, is that things get done, and any redundancy helps provide a safety net when issues arise.

A culture of accountability must be developed rather than mandated.  Executive directives can communicate priorities, but they are not enough.  Top-down imperatives don’t draw people in, and they don’t win their hearts.  At the same time, value-generating engagement does not rely on charisma.  Though leaders can attract people through force of personality, that kind of attraction can be harmful when it is pointed in the wrong direction.  Effective change leaders have a strong and compelling orientation, but they often drive the greatest results by the quiet and unobtrusive ways they influence others.

Developing this kind of influence as a leader is harder than implementing tools and processes.  It may require learning and teaching new ways of working with people.  New organizational forms may also be needed to encourage teams to work together instead of opposing each other.  All of these changes will require people to adapt, and leaders should expect resistance.

For managers whose experience is based on the mechanics of delivering projects, this kind of leadership will require a significant shift in focus and approach.  Some new program leaders will be uncomfortable defining their role this way.  Developing new competencies is always difficult, but for those used to tactical execution and transactional project management, this emphasis on influencing and engaging people can feel political, distracting, and impractical.

Managers who become successful change leaders will understand the need for this reorientation.  Their focus will shift from methods and deliverables to guiding, motivating, and aligning people. They will rely more on the efforts of stakeholders outside their formal power structures. Even within direct reporting relationships, they will recognize the need for motivation and ownership from their teams that command and control management can’t produce.

If this approach to program leadership is political, it is because politics is about ways of working with people in complex organizations. That doesn’t mean it has to be manipulative or disingenuous. If our perspective has colored a history of bad politics, then we have even more reason to develop and demonstrate the power that can come from leading through effective organizational relationships.

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