In the midst of change, help people remember the reason for it

Some people will romanticize the past and grieve what they perceive as real losses when things change. Leaders should talk about the good coming from the change to maintain alignment, momentum and focus.

In February 2012, I traded a high-performance car for a hybrid sedan. Frankly, the hybrid has few features to commend it. It looks like a space pod. It accelerates like a tortoise on Ambien, and an accomplished teenager could outmaneuver it in an RV. So why did I buy it -- and perhaps, more vexing still, why don’t I trade it?

As you could guess, it is the gas mileage. I went from getting 22 miles per gallon (of premium gas, no less) in the high-performance car to more than 50 in the hybrid. Since I drive more than 20,000 miles per year, that’s not an incidental feature.

Even so, it is as if the car manufacturer knows how tempted I am to drive to another car dealer to buy something sleeker, sportier and a whole lot more interesting because a curious feature is built into the dash. There, on the dash, is a display that, at the conclusion of every trip, tells me exactly how much money I saved by driving the hybrid as opposed to my previous car. When I refuel the car, I input what I paid per gallon, and it calculates my comparative savings on every trip. On a recent hour-long trip, the car told me that I had saved $4.54 by driving the space pod. For one more day, I didn’t trade it.

What my car does is to double down on the reason for my trade-in. That display -- that single per-trip calculation -- keeps before me why I made the change (gas mileage) and highlights the benefits that are accruing with every mile I drive ($4.54 on one trip alone).

That display in the dash has become a lesson for me in change leadership.

In the midst of change, it is not uncommon for people to romanticize the past and grieve what they perceive as real losses in the change. It is easy for people to obsess about the sacrifices they are making. In their grief, they can forget the reason for the change in the first place. Likewise, it can dull their awareness of the benefits of the change that they are already experiencing. The leader’s job is to keep attention on those things – “Remember why we did this, and look at what is happening because we did!”

Within institutional leadership, it can be a real challenge to do this. Reasons for change can be complicated or confidential. They can be difficult to explain to staff and stakeholders. They may be based more on a leader’s intuition than verifiable data. But what can be shared should be shared again and again.

Likewise, once change is underway, the benefits of change are sometimes slow to appear. The benefits that are visible, however small, should be noted, shared and celebrated. They should be raised at staff meetings and highlighted to stakeholders. In fact, the smaller the benefit, the more important it is that it is trumpeted loudly so that people see that good things are happening.

By keeping attention on why we changed and the good that is coming from it, we maintain alignment, momentum and focus. That doesn’t mean people won’t still be nostalgic and grieve the past, but it does mean that they will keep moving into the future.