My last column described what I’ve learned in starting major change in organizations: You’ve got to have a clear vision, and you’ve got to get distractions out of the way so you can focus on the task at hand.
Here are some rules for maintaining momentum during a successful revolution:
Open yourself to new allies, and you’ll find them in unexpected places. For example, that complaining troublemaker may have a point, and when she hopes that someone’s finally going to listen, she may emerge as an unlikely asset — or even grow into a leader.
I once had a rabble-rouser who led a successful effort to unionize a small manufacturing plant. Yet once I recognized that he and I were the only people in the facility dissatisfied with our current performance, I appointed him to a supervisory role. He ultimately became superintendent — and ran things much more smoothly than before.
In another plant, a young, low-wage assembly worker, seeing us try to solve a persistent problem, stepped up and showed us how to do it, because she felt for the first time that someone cared what she thought. Nobody had ever asked for her help!
Along the same line, listen to the opposition, paying special attention to their motivation. The most troublesome resistance frequently comes from front-line supervision, and often for a variety of valid reasons. A foreman feels that he’s being blamed for the failings of current methods, and needs to defend himself. Or he believes that you don’t understand the real problem, which is that he doesn’t have resources to do the job. Or he’s close to retirement — and can’t face learning something new.
Or, worst of all, it may be that even if the current situation is problematic, it benefits him personally – he’s getting overtime, for example, and making more money than he would if the problem were solved, or using the long hours to hide from an unpleasant situation at home. There are countless reasons for people to have a self-interest in the status quo, many of which have little to do with the problem you need to solve. The closer you listen to resistance, the better the chance you can dissolve it.
Finally, accept that you can’t win them all. Some people will resist despite your best efforts to win them over, and you’ll come to a point where you have to part company. I once had to fire a good employee — 30 years of service, but now overpaid with obsolete skills — knowing he would never again find a situation as good. The business had outgrown him, and he couldn’t keep up. It’s painful to realize this, but your responsibility is to choose the future security of your company over the current security of one individual, regardless of how unpleasant the result may be.
In the middle of your revolution, ask yourself:
1. Are you open-minded enough to look for new allies?
2. Are you willing to listen to the opposition?
3. Can you accept the fact that you’re not going to win them all?
Early in his career, Alec Pendleton took control of a small, struggling manufacturing company in Akron, Ohio, and sold off the unprofitable divisions and rebuilt the factory, quadrupling sales in seven years. He has been CEO of Summit Tool Company for 34 years, and is the author of the blog Big Ideas for Small Companies, powered by the MPI Group.