Or, Everything I Know I Learned From Live Events
Change is the one thing that we can count on in business, so you would think that change management would be a core competency. Unfortunately change is not something humans often enjoy, so we need to teach our employees how to change.
One of the first things actors have to learn (aside from their lines) is what to do when another actor misses a cue. The answer is improvise, but actors have to make improvisational choices within the context of the scene and with a complete understanding of what is supposed to happen next. Good actors can rebuild a broken scene by recasting the lines of other characters as their own to keep all the players on track. Great actors can do this without the audience and often the crew ever realizing what just happened. Businesses have to master this kind of improvisation in order to be consistently successful.
There are three critical success factors that determine whether an organization has the capacity for change:
“The only people who know where the edge is are the ones that have been over it.”
A colleague said this once to me many years ago, and I have never forgotten its significance. At the time we may have been assessing an employee or freelancer, and the context would have indicated that the individual in question lacked the experience to move at the pace we needed. Live Events run along a razor’s edge of deadlines, near misses, and endless surprises. Planning is mission critical, but as a Captain Barbossa says, “the code is more what you’d call guidelines than actual rules.” It is important to have people in charge of processes that are as good at bending the rules as they are at following them. And when the rules no longer work, then the effective process owner will know how to get it changed.
“We make a plan so we can change it.”
My clients will recognize this as one of my favorite sayings. It comes out in meetings when a team member expresses frustration over the perceived futility of planning discussions. “It’s all gonna change anyway!” The purpose of most planning meetings is to make the process more transparent. If all the players understand the reasoning and factors involved in creating the original plan, they will be better prepared to improvise when the time comes. And the time will come. Many companies eschew planning as a waste of time because circumstances change so quickly. Instead these companies operate in reaction mode, which often fails because it becomes too easy to lose track of the final outcome. The Plan is what keeps us pointed towards the goal.
“Start with facts, then at least we know something.”
If you don’t know where to start, gather some data. Facts are your friends. You may not agree with the facts, because they often represent limitations. But, knowing what you cannot change will simplify the discussion of what you will change. Early in my career I was a flyman in a theater and the road company rigger didn’t measure the grid height correctly. As a result all the chain hoists trimmed at the wrong height making it impossible to fly the set pieces out of view. The Stage Manager was very philosophical about it. “Well, we can lower the stage or raise the roof. However, we can’t do either in time. How about we reset the pick points correctly?” He then directed the scenic crew to clear the stage and take an early coffee break while we worked overhead. Although his comments were tongue in cheek, his methodology was intended to teach his panicky department head how to handle the situation. The Stage Manager gathered the relevant data, kept his eyes on the goal, and chose the next logical thing that needed to happen to accommodate the new plan. If there had been no plan or order for loading in the show, he wouldn’t have known which steps would be affected by the miscalculated rigging points.
Teaching a company how to be proactive instead of reactive is all about institutionalizing process change. Many leaders are disappointed to learn that becoming proactive isn’t about establishing hard and fast rules that you cannot deviate from. Proactive firms research, plan, and adjust over and over again. It looks something like this:
- Establish who owns the process; they have to be involved in change.
- Recognize that many steps are dependent upon an earlier step.
- Recognize the natural checkpoints in the process when several sub-steps come together.
- When something goes wrong, reset to the last checkpoint and choose a new path.
- The first step in the new process is the one that allows the dependent steps to occur in the right order.
- Let all the other process owners know about the change so they can adjust accordingly.
- Ensure that those adjustments will flow properly so everyone can reach the intended goal. If not, return to step 1.
Something Integrators can learn something from Rental-Stagers about project management (ok, some stagers need to learn this too) is that the key to successful planning is to build flexibility into processes. Allow extra time, but don’t use it without knowingly changing the plan. Provide additional labor to absorb some of the time of INEVITABLE changes. Use the natural checkpoints in the process wisely. Know that if you are behind on schedule that catching up will require using additional resources be they personnel, time, or reducing the scope. If you miss two checkpoints in a row, then the project is out of control and more drastic measures are needed.
Business owners can apply the same type of thinking to help the company reach its goals. Some part of management’s time needs to be spent on the company in lieu of processing customer-driven projects. We call this working “on” the business instead of “in” the business. Next month, we will examine how to use business plans as platforms for process change.
Thanks for reading!