From Vision to Reality: Making Change Happen
March 19. 2019 | A conversation with Tom Andrews, Founder and President, TJALeadership
For nearly a decade-and-a-half in design consulting, UXL has been working flexibly and collaboratively to help diverse clients solve complex user interface and information problems. While our client teams find our engagements highly satisfying and our deliverables compelling, some of the work ends short of implementation at the vision, design, and roadmap stages due to lack of funding, technology obstacles, or the level of executive support.
How can we—consultants brought in to think beyond today’s small goals and foster change—better structure and manage engagements to improve our collective chances of success? How do we elevate ourselves to the level of true partners? How do we empower our clients to get the highest value from our efforts?
Identify and bring in all decision-makers and stakeholders, and actively facilitate alignment
Understand the politics at play: Who is the real owner? Who needs to be heard?
Ensure decision-makers feel the process is legitimate
Co-locate with clients, when possible, to see firsthand what is and isn’t going to work
Have a “strategy for the strategy”—how will the vision get implemented?
Grapple with risks and obstacles, and plan for their mitigation
Build in follow-up involvement during implementation to reinforce expectations of follow-through and accountability
Julie Fortier: Tom, you work with C-level executives who are trying to embrace change. As designers, what can we do to help our clients really embrace our strategic recommendations and be more successful?
Ed Guttman: To be more pointed, we make recommendations and outline the steps that they need to follow, and our clients say, "This is great. We love it. We want to do it." And then the next message is, “We're not ready. There's nothing we can do. We have to wait.” How do we short-circuit that disconnect?
Tom Andrews: Well, should you be? I was re-reading Flawless Consulting by Peter Block the other day. He also wrote a lovely meditation on what matters in relationships between clients and consultants called The Answer to How is Yes.
Ed: I like that.
Tom: One of the points Peter Block makes is that it's not your responsibility. You can't promise an outcome that you have no control over and you shouldn't be attached to that. What you need to promise is the thing that you're actually going to deliver. We think of ourselves as so much in partnership with clients and want so much to see the outcome manifest that we take on responsibility for that outcome. Peter argues that you can't. It’s not your job. It’s the client's job, and if you do that, you're overreaching, and there's even an arrogance in it. It's beyond your mandate, your power, and your control.
You want to see your work come to life and it's really disappointing when it doesn't, but the point is, you can’t commit to deliver something that you cannot possibly do because it's not yours to do. You are not the client.
Julie: I think where it's disappointing is where success feels like it has turned to failure. For example, we worked on a design-oriented effort where all of our stakeholders were incredibly happy with the deliverable. Technology was there every step of the way and in every conversation. After we concluded the engagement, we learned that Technology deemed the effort too difficult and expensive, and that’s where it ended. That really bothers me. But what you're saying is, maybe it shouldn't?
Tom: Yes, I'm saying maybe it shouldn't bother you. We can probably up the chances that what we sow ends up in fertile soil. If I reflect back on mistakes, those would be to miss out on the politics of an organization.
Every organization is a culture of human beings who are not only interested in good work but also in their status, how they're doing, and who has control over what. I have often been naive about the politics of introducing something new in which important stakeholders haven't been enrolled, haven't been along on the journey, and haven't bought in.
I think we can get a lot better at managing the politics of the organization and so can our clients. When they work with an agency, I think what they love is that they don't have to deal with the politics. They can just deal with the purity of really cool work and people who really want them to be successful.
As agencies, we underestimate the work of bringing along 15 different people with their own agendas. We can help clients plan for that and build it into the process. If you want a client to implement for the long run. you have to bring a lot of people along. It takes longer, which is more expensive and more complicated. It can be frustrating along the way. But if you don't do that upfront, it happens afterwards when it's too late. As the African proverb goes, “If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
Julie: So how do you make sure that everyone has a voice? What are some of the tactics you've used to identify and include everyone who needs to be included?
Tom: First of all, have a strategy. Our clients might not want to acknowledge that they don't have full authority, and that there are people who could overrule their decision. Our job is to determine up front with our clients a strategy for enrolling stakeholders. They need to identify the people who are going to either derail them or who they need on their side because they're important decision-makers. If you just have that conversation and plan for it, you're already ahead.
You also need process legitimacy. In order for people to buy into something, they have to feel the process you have used to arrive at the decision is a legitimate one. It's how our legal system works, and same is true of a change project in an organization.
If I am a key stakeholder because I own technology and this is a technology platform application or requires my resources, and I was not involved in the decision-making, that's not a legitimate process to me. We have to determine who we are enrolling or not enrolling on this journey, and when we're making decisions that people have to be involved in so that they believe in the decision itself. You don’t want to be in the position of trying to convince someone of something you've already decided.
Ed: We've been pretty rigorous in many projects over the years with taking the time to talk to stakeholders upfront and making sure we know who they all are. What are their responsibilities? What is their role in this? What does success mean for them? What are their biggest fears about this project? We get them to talk honestly about that. We take all that in, and it becomes part of our mindset. But maybe we need to be sure that we continue to bring them along and make sure the stakeholders are involved, all of them, all the way through because I don't think we've always done that.
Tom: There’s a big difference between someone individually expressing their opinion and being part of a conversation. When you're part of a dialogue and you hear everyone else, you have to acknowledge that your opinion is not the only thing in play. You don't get that in an interview. I've seen such a shift in clients from having strong convictions in an interview to changing their minds through debate and dialogue in a workshop setting. Without that process, if the deliverable doesn’t track to their opinion, they may feel, "Well, you didn't listen to me."
Julie: It also happens that some people’s opinions will be discounted. We might be told upfront, "You need to speak with this person. By the way, he's very difficult and he has been here for a long time. His vision is not where we're going, but you have to talk to him." What do you do with that?
Ed: The truth may have to be told. Maybe it's not when you're talking with him because it's not going to help, but later, when he comes back around and says, "I'm still not on board with this,” it’s communicated that this isn’t the direction that the company is going.
Tom: Another thought came to me as we were talking about what gets in the way of good implementation. I’ve spent a lot of time studying leadership and human behavior as well as change. One of the biases we naturally have is the optimism bias, which is how we are over-optimistic about what we can actually do. In the long-term, we tend to underestimate what we can achieve, but in the short-term, we always think we can do more than we can actually do.
Ed: I guess that makes me an optimist after all.
Tom: One of the things to do to counter that is to have a real conversation about all the things that can go wrong. The conversation that we've tried to engineer when we’re thinking about implementation is always like, “What are all the things that could derail us? What obstacles are we going to run into?” Let's talk about them, confront them, and then figure out what we can mitigate with our strategy. If you don't have that conversation, then the first time you run into an obstacle, it's likely to be paralyzing. When you talk about it, it mentally prepares everyone and reframes their attitude to say, "This isn't going to be easy and I'm going to need to gear up for a good chunk of time to make this work."
Julie: In workshops, one of the boards we might have is Risks. If a risk is brought up during the session, we would document it, and there would be a discussion at the end dedicated to risks. We don’t always do that. We had a client where our main project sponsor took a new position and left the project. We tried to re-engage with the remaining stakeholders to say, "Let's talk about the challenges. What's going to prevent us from moving forward?" It has been challenging to have that conversation with project ownership in flux.
Ed: Sometimes the obstacle is that no one sitting at the table is equipped to move things forward. You lost the one person who could.
Julie: There are probably ways to bring it up in a non-confrontational way, like “Do we have the knowledge? Do we have the right leadership?”
At what point in the process would you have that conversation about risks?
Tom: After coming up with the strategy. One of my old colleagues used to say that there's a strategy, then there's the strategy for the strategy.” It's like, "Okay. That was great you got the strategy, but it's going to become a doorstop unless we have a way to implement it." That can sometimes take as much time as thinking about the strategy itself. That's the moment when we need to talk about all the obstacles and concerns.
Julie: I think we're just starting to be more focused on that part. You asked us to deliver X, and here it is in all its glory, and we're super-proud of it and you're so excited, you're so inspired. And that’s where it ends. For our clients to be successful, we need to help them figure out the strategy for the strategy, and how we're going to execute on that.
It's also the sales effort for the next phase of the work. We have to be more diligent about making sure our clients feel empowered to be successful, and that we’re right there with them.
We've been saying all along that we're not the kind of company that “unveils the statue”. They've seen this statue all along and at the end, we just dropped it on their doorstep. It's still not better. I guess we need to help them place it properly in the living room.
Tom: On a project, we delegated two strategists who went and sat in the team space with the enterprise strategy team for almost six months. The strategy they started with was radically modified by the time they were done. It was quite hard for them, and they came away saying, "That was just eye-opening." What we had idealistically thought would be the right strategy for transformation or design or strategy and what actually was going to work were a world apart. You only know because you're trying to implement it. It's this constant modification and iteration process.
There's something really interesting about constantly beta testing your thinking as opposed to keeping it as a separate outside activity and then trying to inject it into an organization. Embedding in some way can be effective. That’s a way to internalize and bring in outside learning but make it more implementable. That's a model. If you want to help with implementation, be involved in it.
I think having the conversations with a client about what is the strategy for the strategy is super important and you need to have somebody who knows what they're doing.
I had a strategy colleague with an operational background who knew what it looked like to actually do this within an organization. She demonstrated that the only way things work is when they fit within some kind of cadence within the business itself of regular meetings with a workflow that everyone is used to. Otherwise, you're this foreign entity that's too easy to reject. It doesn't fit. It's not going to fit anywhere. You can have that strategy for strategy, you can embed, you can talk about concerns and risks downstream.
Ed: It seems like we've drawn a series of conclusions ranging from stakeholder recognition to stakeholder involvement. Not just getting their opinions and feedback but bringing them into the process. Acknowledging risks and obstacles and planning for them. Later, putting together a strategy for the strategy, which may incorporate building in follow-up involvement in implementation, possibly by co-location, and getting specific about operationalizing the strategy.
Tom: I think there are some choices to make as a business. We always struggle to figure out, “Do we really want to be in that or not?” McKinsey, for example, very point-blank says, "We'll give you the best thinking. We will give you the answer that we will prove is the right answer for you and your job is to execute it. We're not going to implement it. You’ve got to do it. That's your job."
Another model in consulting and agencies is, "We'll do it for you." It's a great ongoing business model. It's like the outsourced marketing department or UX department or design agency. It’s an ongoing revenue stream, but I think it's co-dependency, too. It's not real consulting, but maybe it's a great business model.
You have to choose where you draw the line. Do you really want to be involved in the implementation? You can build a follow-up in that’s part of the original contract and on the calendar. It connects you to the implementation, implies more accountability, and gives you good data.
When I think about projects gone wrong, it was because there was something wrong upfront. You need to be willing to say, "I don't think we should do this work because the client isn’t ready or it's not going to be a good relationship." I think you can tell upfront what the relationship is going to be like. If someone's really hesitant at the beginning, they're probably going to be hesitant all along the way. It's hard to really pay attention to that because of the urge to sell work and to persuade someone. I've always regretted when I have persuaded someone as opposed to creating the space for them to make the decision.
Julie: If you love them, let them go!
Tom: As soon as you just feel like you have to do it, I think you're going down a bad path. Sometimes it will work out, but the only times it has gone wrong is when I just ignored that feeling. You feel a lot of pressure to get the business. It’s hard to stop yourself and say, "Wait, I don't think we should do this. I'm going to stand on ethics right now."
Also, if you're working in the middle of the organization, sometimes it's not always clear who has budget authority. I just had this experience recently with a CMO new to the company who signed us up and then realized we also needed approval from the CFO. You think it's done and really it's like, "No, now they have to go persuade someone else to give them money."
There are things that you need to be really clear about upfront: What is the timeframe? Do you have a budget? What is the budget? Do you have the authority to sign off on this?
Julie: This is going to help us put some things in practice.
Tom: It's helping me, too.
Julie: Yeah, I’m saying really smart things that I should put in practice, right?
Tom: Yes, exactly. That sounds great.
Julie: These are things that I think we know, but in the delivery process, we're not always diligent enough about them, and we need to be.
Tom: I wonder if it's about us setting that expectation upfront in some way so it's actually contracted into the process. The obstacles specifically called out as a moment, the stakeholder strategy explicitly called out, a moment in the sign process where there's a ritual around having the authority and being fully on board. I think unless we have those built in, we tend to forget them. I know I do.
Julie: Maybe we should get back together in six months and see if we've gotten any smarter.
Tom: Actually implemented any of these things?
Ed: Yes, it's already in the contract. We’ve already bought the bottle of wine.
Josh Cellars Cabernet Sauvignon 2016
“This full-bodied wine is packed with aromas of ripe fruit, cedar, cinnamon and flowers on the nose. The juicy palate brings flavors of blackberry and black cherry wrapped in a velvety layer of fine-grained tannins.” –Wine Enthusiast
“I liked it. It was nice.” –Tom Andrews
About Tom Andrews
For 20 years, Tom has been helping Chief Executives lead their organizations through transformation as a personal advisor and strategist, a leader of client teams, and the President of SYPartners’ Organizational Transformation practice. Tom has recently founded TJALeadership to pursue his interest in integrating leadership strategy into organizational and cultural transformation. He has a deep love for developing leadership in the context of a business strategy, and has enjoyed helping Fortune 100 companies figure out how to improve their leadership of change. Tom has designed leadership curricula for GE’s Management Development Institute at Crotonville and the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He has also spoken at Fortune 100 companies and high-performance organizations such as the U.S. Olympic Committee on the topics of culture and leadership. Learn more: tjaleadership.com
About UXL Inc. | User Experience Lab
UXL solves complex user interface and information problems. We specialize in strategic design of data-rich, process-oriented applications across platforms and devices. Since 2005, our diverse clients rely on us to hone their vision and design better user experiences. Our expertise is especially deep in financial services, healthcare, and insurance, and runs across the product design lifecycle. From research and requirements to strategy, design, and validation, we work flexibly and collaboratively with our client teams onsite or in our own design studios based in NYC and Westchester. Learn more: uxlinc.com