The leadership team for a consumer product company gathered around a conference room table to discuss a new product development system and process. The project had been going on for 14 months and was entering the next phase: implementation.
Sitting at the head of the table, the sponsor had one goal for the meeting: to get the vice presidents to commit to driving the initiative in each of their groups. He asked them, “What will you do to support this initiative?”
They went around the table and answered the question until they got to “Bob,” a vice president for one of the commercial product groups. Instead of answering the question, Bob started questioning what the project was about, challenged its purpose and issued concerns about how the project was being run. Everyone in the room was silent, looking down the table at the project sponsor to gauge his reaction.
We hear variations of this story when it comes to driving change within supply chain. The basic ingredients of the story are:
- Leaders agree on a course of action and issue their “support” for the intention of projects and initiatives.
- Change sponsors and leaders are encouraged by this support and develop robust plans to design and implement change.
- As the point of implementation nears, the reality of change sets in and support begins to erode across the leadership team and organization.
“I have buy-in” is a phrase we hear a lot from change agents. When a project or an idea is conceptual and has no imminent risk, it is easy for leaders in the business to “buy in.” Who wouldn’t agree to the concept of more integrated supply chain systems or increased efficiency by consolidating operations to a regional hub? What these change agents really have is “conceptual buy-in.” Organization leaders think it is a good idea today, but that can change in an instant, and it often does to the surprise of those leading change.
Building Support is an Ongoing Process, Not a Point in Time
Leaders will inevitably fall in and out of support of a project over time. The role of the change agent is not just to get “buy-in” at the beginning of a project. Rather they should focus on developing and maintaining engagement and alignment throughout the life cycle of any given project. What are the strategies for maintaining this alignment?
Communication is top among those strategies. In a recent study of supply chain executives, managers, supervisors and individual contributors, we found that three of the top five strategies had to do with communication over different time horizons:
- Long-Term, Communicating a Vision: Communicating what the company is trying to accomplish with this change.
- Medium- to Short-Term, Ongoing Communication Updates: As the project moves through its stages, communicating what directors, managers and supervisors need to know about how it will impact the business and their team.
- Short-Term, Communication on the Positive Impacts to My Job: As the project team knows more about the details of the change, outlining how it will specifically make the work people are doing easier, more efficient or more interesting.
Outbound communication is only a part of the equation. We find that listening is key to the most successful change agents. This means sitting down with key leaders and asking them questions to give insight about the change. Two things happen when you focus on listening:
- You learn about what other people know, perceive, hope for and fear about the change you are looking to implement.
- You build trust. Everyone likes to be heard, and by listening to understand the concerns (without trying to sell or convince) you signal to others that what they have to say is important to you.
Many companies are using change listening sessions as one way to engage audiences across supply chain. One industrial company facing a large change in its organization structure decided to run listening sessions, beginning with its supply chain leadership team. They took the questions they developed to a regional team and ran a similar session. After that session, individual participants were so impressed with the process and outcomes that they asked the facilitators for the questions so they could use them with their own teams. The listening sessions fostered deep understanding of the need for the change, the fears around changing and the potential strategies for success.
Successful listening sessions are carefully crafted to help participants share what they think and feel about an issue. They should provide the change team invaluable information while also engaging people to openly share why they might support or oppose the change. They should also help participants imagine how they might participate in the change moving forward. Questions one might ask include:
- What are the worst possible outcomes of implementing this new change?
- What are the worst possible outcomes if we do nothing?
- What are the best possible outcomes of implementing this new change?
- What beliefs and behaviors would we need to have in order to achieve our best outcomes?
- What strategies should we use in order to achieve our best possible outcomes?1
Maintaining leadership in the face of change and risk requires courage. The leader of the consumer product company facing a challenge from one of his VPs could have stopped the meeting and insisted the project team address the concerns before they move forward. Instead, he stopped “Bob” and asked him to think about how he would support the initiative. After the meeting, the project leader had the courage to sit down with Bob and listen. By the end of their time together, Bob was talking about ways in which he would support the change in his division.
Gartner Supply Chain
1 Questions adapted from “Finding New Ground,” Robert Chadwick