Four ways to successfully engineer change

Cengineer changehange is hard.  Leading others through change can be a daunting
challenge.  However, if leaders understand and apply some basic principles, even large organizations can be re-aligned and move in a different direction.

I was thinking about this as I watched a video about operating a large rail yard.  I noticed that when an engine hooked up to a long train of cars, the engineer did not simply pull forward after it was coupled.  Instead, he backed up first.  Then, he slowly accelerated forward.  By backing up, the couplings between each rail car were compressed.  As a result, when the engine started forward, there was a small amount of slack in the couplings between each car.  When the engine started moving forward it was pulling (for an instant) just one car – then two cars, then three cars, and so on.

By following this procedure, the engine was able to eventually pull several hundred cars.  If the engineer did not back up first, he would have to pull all the cars at the same time.  The total weight of a long train would cause even the strongest engine to lose traction and spin its wheels.

This is a wonderful metaphor for leading change. Continue reading

How can we increase creativity and engagement?

Many ideasHave you ever been a victim of this circumstance?

Senior leadership issues a clarion call for new ideas.  “We need to generate more revenue!”  Or more likely, “Our costs are too high and we want your input on how to cut our expenses!”  But this is not just any request to submit some ideas into a suggestion box or idea database.  Instead, there is a sense of urgency and perhaps even an expectation that every person contributes.  Groups across the organization are assembled for brainstorming sessions. Perhaps edicts are issued.  “No one can leave the room unless they submit at least 5 ideas.”

What’s the outcome of these sessions?  Often it is disappointing.  Sure, the quantity of ideas is impressive.  But what about the quality?  The same recycled ideas are offered, with nothing offered outside existing paradigms. Continue reading

Is it OK to be foolish?

Innovation, Risk, Creativity, InnovativeWhen was the last time that you or someone on your team proposed a crazy, unique, absurd, outlandish, or otherwise unconventional idea?  Has this ever happened?  What kind of reception did the innovative idea (and the person who proposed it) receive?

William Barnett, Professor of Business Leadership, Strategy, and Organizations at Stanford, discussed this topic as part of a recent webinar.  He described a “thought experiment” that helps us to consider what happens when someone comes up with a novel idea.  This concept aligns with the notion of how the fear of failure can influence whether innovative ideas are surfaced.

Barnett asked the hypothetical question, “When you have a good idea, does everybody have to agree with that idea for it to be correct?”  (Most people would say, “No”).

Barnett then asked, “When we have an innovative idea, what is often the first thing we do?  We ask others, ‘What do you think?’  “If the people we ask don’t like our innovative idea, what do we do then?  We often ask someone else.  Basically, we are looking for affirmation that the idea that we have is a good one.”

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Ask 3 questions to challenge the status quo

Regardless of the approach that is used for continuous improvement, at some point in the process the team will engage in a discussion to identify potential solutions.  The most common methods include silent brainstorming or a round-robin format, collecting the ideas from all team members for consideration by the team.  Often, this can be very productive.  A sufficient number of ideas is obtained and the team reaches consensus on which ones to implement.

However, one limitation of these conventional brainstorming techniques is that the ideas are generated within our existing paradigms.  In other words, every one thinks about potential solutions in the context of how we currently do things.  As a result, the improvements that are made tend to be incremental in nature.status quo

But what if we are seeking significantly higher levels of performance?  Will the ideas that the team implements be sufficient to get us there?  Or what if we have already made several improvements to the process, but the performance level is still not where we need it to be?

The team may need to leverage an alternative way of thinking to generate new and different solutions.  The Creative Challenge E/R/A approach is designed to question the current solutions.  It allows us to investigate the current way that work gets done – and surfaces alternative solutions that could be even better than the existing ones.

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Fail often! Encourage continuous improvement with trial and error

 “Success is stumbling from failure to failure with no loss of enthusiasm.”  – Winston Churchill


Greg was always naturally curious.

As a boy, he would tinker in his father’s workshop, often taking things apart just to see how they worked (much to the annoyance of Dad).  He would take various things from the shop and piece them together, hoping to make something new – something that was his.  In science class, students were paired up to make model rockets.  failEveryone was given the same materials and a solid rocket engine.  On “launch” day, the model rockets were ignited on the football field.  All the rockets hurtled skyward for several hundred feet before the fuel was exhausted and they floated back to earth.  Except for one.  Greg and his lab partner’s rocket whistled out of sight – never to be seen again.  When quizzed about what he did, Greg just shrugged his shoulders and said, “I just changed a few things that I thought could make it go higher.  I guess it worked.”

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Six thinking hats to wear on your continuous improvement journey

Perhaps you have found yourself in this situation.

Your team has been diligent in using a structured process to solve a vexing problem.  Most everyone seems to be engaged.  Quite a few ideas have been generated.  The team has used a criteria matrix or other sorting tool to narrow the choices to the best solution.  It seems clear what action is next.  The group needs to decide how to implement the improvement.

But wait….

There is an uneasiness in the air.  You can sense it.

  • You can see it in the way that Jennifer is tilting her head as the team’s proposal is summarized.
  • Matt prefaces his comment with, “I guess I’m OK with this solution, since everyone else seems to be.”
  • Susan wonders aloud if the crew will accept this new process design.

Suddenly, it doesn’t seem like all the team members are confident in the solution.  You find yourself wondering, “Didn’t we stack hands on this solution already? Why didn’t I hear about these concerns earlier?  What did I miss?”

At a time like this, it might be helpful to put on a hat.  Or better yet, six hats.

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