Innovation is a business staple. Companies have to constantly move forward. It means developing stronger, faster, cheaper technology. It means finding new markets. But it’s also knowing that a shift in environment is needed in order to keep the best people. Court Chilton is a senior lecturer at MIT’s Sloan School. Large corporations and top executives come to him, bringing two common items: the desire to change and the refrain of, “I’ve got good people, but I need to help them leave the status quo behind.” That’s the central challenge to overcome, because, as Chilton says, change is frustrating. It involves accepting chaos and uncertainty for longer than a month. It can be done, but it requires certain steps to be taken up front and calls upon certain traits from executives. Those who prepare wisely and maintain stamina and patience, he says, are the ones who can navigate the inevitable early obstacles and end up with a new approach taking hold.
Rewiring the default setting
Sloan School of Management
It’s hard enough for one person to change. It means avoiding old habits when times are stressful. Consider 40,000 employees trying to do it. Change is not a linear process, a point that’s not always accepted but needs to be, Chilton says. The traditional top-down approach, in which a chief executive issues a directive and waits for it to be embraced and executed never really worked in the past and certainly doesn’t work now. “It’s big and slow,” he says.
Today’s workplace moves too quickly to wait for unanimous support. It’s not a new concept, but in order for change to have a chance, executives need to get a critical mass, 20-25 percent, of their people on board from the start in order to build momentum, Chilton says. After that, the big requirement is patience, a lot of patience. Change isn’t pulled off in a two-day workshop or through a memo. If a workforce is going to be asked to enter into the unknown, it needs to know that senior management backs the effort long after the novelty has worn off. Details can be tweaked, but the core message has to remain consistent from year to year. If it wavers, it becomes “change du jour”, and the result is a staff that becomes burned out and cynical, he says.
A close relative to support is constancy of message. As an example, one client brought 700 of its 1,000 employees to Sloan. The early obstacle was goal agreement – they wouldn’t feel comfortable starting an initiative without a consensus. It took until the eighth meeting until the conversation and mindset shifted to, “We’ve got tolerate some messiness,” Chilton says.
Part of the messiness means that employees are given leeway. They’re allowed to have difficult conversations between themselves as they figure out the new expectations. They’re given latitude to make independent decisions within a framework. It’s difficult, but Chilton says that executives who accept “noise” do better.
As part of the classroom training and consulting work, Chilton assigns projects to senior management, such as having employees fix old, lingering problems, find new markets, or build and test prototypes. Whatever it is, it’s going to last 3-6 months, which is only a slice of the overall timeline for a change initiative. Clinton says to expect 18 months to see initial movement and 3-5 years to fully shift.
The timeframe serves a few functions. Employees are able to build the new and necessary skills and they start taking on a new mindset. Executives get an updated impression of their staff and start viewing it as more flexible and capable. Both sides can see that change is working and beneficial. That last part is key, Chilton says. It’s impossible to know if the initiative was the sole cause of a company’s transformation, but amassing evidence – different than proof – shows that impact. It might seem too vague or complex to measure, but Chilton says “move towards it.” People become invested, mutual trust is built, and the result is the workforce becomes a “talent factory”, which ends up constantly attracting like-minded people to the company.
Building from within
Along with a cultural shift, developing the next generation of leaders is a related part in the change process. It’s a way to future-proof a company and another reason executives come to Sloan. All industries have to prepare for the impending retirements of senior staff. While talented number 2 and 3 people are already in place, they usually lack a combination of leadership, technical and business skills – it’s never one thing – to make what’s a significant leap to the top level, Chilton says. It requires an investment, but it’s a prudent one. Internal people already possess institutional knowledge, a commodity that’s hard to find and replace both from a time and money perspective.
Chilton says that while there’s a quantifiable aspect, much of what he does comes off as soft and fuzzy. Change requires things like buy-in, trust and commitment. “It’s at least 50 percent art,” he says. But companies and executives from engineering, science, pharmaceuticals, finance and mathematics come to Sloan because MIT has experience with those fields and scientifically talks about qualitative steps. The research is taught in a “data driven, engineery” way and can show such elements as when and how much employees are engaged. It doesn’t pretend to answer every question, Chilton says, but it offers some context and control by framing the risk with, “Here’s what the science says. Here’s what the science doesn’t know yet, and then giving people the opportunity to make a choice about how to move forward.”