Don’t Even Start

So, there I was:

I had an idea.

I had a plan.

I worked long and hard to put it all together, networking, socializing, writing.

I was ready.

My presentation to the Board of Directors was going well. People nodded their heads in the right spots and asked intelligent questions. I was smart, and charming, and funny. And then, one of the directors raised her hand. “What happens when you leave?”

“Excuse me?” I said.

“Well, this is all well and good, but this is going to take a lot of oversight, and you’re leaving. Who will keep this going after you transfer?”

That was a pretty darn good question. I’d been so focused on the uphill battle to get any organizational change started that I hadn’t really thought about what would happen when I left. Every answer I had contained dirty words:
– The guy replacing me could.
– The other leaders at lower levels should keep it moving when I leave.
– The target audience that would benefit ought to keep it going all by themselves, without being pushed, because it was a chance for them to develop in their job.

As you can see, I had no good answer.

How many times have we seen some new initiative fizzle out within a year? Did the idea not get enough support at the beginning, or did the one champion for it leave, taking all the motivation, knowledge, or connections with him?

I’m not sure if that idea of mine ever got off the ground. I ended up leaving earlier than expected and never got to push the start button. I left it in a nice package with a pretty bow for those still there to do great things. The lesson I learned was that starting organizational change is possible with the right person to take an idea forward and get some momentum. The hard part is looking forward enough to figure out how to maintain it.

If you can’t look that far forward and figure out how to maintain it, you’d better not even start. Creating change in an organization that falls apart is bad business.

– The people who wanted the change lose out when it doesn’t happen.

– The people who didn’t really care are just distracted by the noise.

– The naysayers are validated.

Good ideas are the life-blood of any business, but good ideas alone without the support to maintain them are more dangerous than the status quo. Worse than just not getting the change implemented, it also makes it harder for the next good idea to get an honest chance. Over time, too many false starts can stagnate any organization.

If you’re going to make a large change, you’d better have a good reason and a lot of support, and that’s just to get started. After that first dry run, or the first few months, then you have the hard part. You’ve started a change, but it’s not part of the culture yet. Here are some questions off the top of my head that I’ve learned to ask about creating change before pushing that start button.

– Who’s the champion for this idea, and will he or she be able to push it through to completion?

– Is there a chance of him leaving, being transferred, or being promoted in the next 2 years?

– Who is the champion’s assistant in all this, the right hand ready to take over if he does leave, or if he gets sick, or if his personal life takes a turn for the worse?

– Depending on the nature of the change, what administrative resources will we need to maintain it?

– How will the manpower footprint change due to this, and will we have the same number of personnel long enough to implement a change while still maintaining the current process?

– When and how can I delegate the responsibility of oversight away from the single champion and to the right level so more people can be involved in maintaining it?

– Next year, will we need to send people to training or certification once it’s implemented, and who will pay for it?

– If the new process costs more to start up than we’re spending, what’s the process of getting the funding in the budget to see this idea through the next fiscal year?

I know these questions are a lot, but ask them, and don’t focus so much on starting too soon. Having that small victory on your annual review just to have it fall apart right afterwards will ultimately hurt the organization.

One person cannot do it alone. If you’re that person, which is how change usually starts, get help. If you see that person who is the single driving force for a change with potential, offer to help in some way. I can tell you from experience that any little help is appreciated.

– What ideas for change do you have?

– Once you get them started, how will they be maintained?

– Better yet, what ideas started but fell flat, and what do you think went wrong?

James Tinker

About James Tinker

James was born and raised in Bangor, and left home at 18 for the Navy. Twenty-five years later, he retired as a Command Master Chief, the highest enlisted rank on a warship in San Diego. His popular blog series, The Day Job, shares personal and professional lessons learned through his career.