Meeting Obstruction? . . . Then Shine a Bright Light

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Over my career I’ve been closely involved with several business transformation and change management initiatives.  These have been both on a smaller scale with private companies and on a large scale with Fortune 500.  They have been both transitional in nature where we solidified the changes and got back to our day jobs, and a massive undertaking where driving the change WAS our day job and then some for years.  Each was both a trial and a learning experience . . . pretty much the definition of life.

In one of these experiences I had the good fortune to be adopted by a mentor that taught me valuable lessons throughout the endeavor.  And one piece of advice that played a particularly important role consisted of three words:  Publish. Publish. Publish.  I didn’t fully understand at first what he meant by that.  But over time it became ever so clear.

Change is hard.  It’s hard to envision . . . It’s hard to accept . . . It’s hard to lead a company through it.  The wider and deeper the change, the harder everything becomes.  I remember when I was transitioning from a smaller company to a larger one and describing to a new senior colleague the “messy dynamics” of the turnaround and change management that I had lived through at the last role.  He turned to me and said, “It’s the same thing here, but you’re turning around an aircraft carrier.”  He wasn’t kidding.

And so we come back to those three words.  Two adversaries that any transformation leader comes to know over time are Resistance and Obstruction.  And they’re not the same.  Resistance to change is human nature.  It’s understandable.  We all fall into the trap.  Guiding people and organizations through these difficult waters is precisely what change management is all about.  And resistance that leads to constructive dialogue can improve the process by avoiding landmines, refining solutions, and gaining buy-in.

But obstructionists take it to another level and there’s nothing healthy about it.  They’re generally seeking to block progress because it infringes on their own agenda which is usually self-serving. It’s territorial and highly political. But obstructionists often operate in the shadows in many ways.  They are at the table playing a hand but never quite showing it, and maybe even hoping the game gets broken up before the cards are laid out and the chips counted.  In reality, the advice “to publish” was really saying “be transparent to a fault.”

What does it mean to be transparent in the context of business transformation and change?  It means that you establish the proper governance and communication forums so that all key constituencies have a seat at the table, especially potential obstructionists. It means you communicate until it hurts, including your rationale for the change strategy, your execution plans, the decision process and guiding principles, and anything else of import.  It means that you document thoroughly, including the discussions held, views expressed, and most importantly decisions made.

Transparency has the effect of bringing obstructionists out into the light of day. It forces them to show their hand, and ensures that they’ve been given a fair hearing through a fair process in a demonstrable and visible manner.  It doesn’t mean that you’ll always succeed in diffusing obstruction, since there are many other factors that influence any given situation.  But you’ll stand a fighting chance without compromising your integrity. The more light that is cast, the greater the contrast with the shadows.

Transparency has other benefits for the broader picture which is why it is such a core principle of change management.  Transparency translates into vulnerability, and vulnerability breeds trust.  Trust is crucial in developing the collaborative relationships and constructive dialogue necessary to manage change successfully.

It takes some guts.  You’re already out on a limb every day if you’re responsible for change and you’ll be crawling out further. And when you turn up the lights, you’ll be feeling some of the heat as well . . . lots of it.  But you were built for that, weren’t you?