Let a Subordinate Solve It!

 


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Effective change comes from the top. That's the conventional wisdom about workplace change. And like lots of conventional wisdom, it's not necessarily the prevailing pattern or even wise.

When companies make change the responsibility of senior management, they train their employees to take a hands-off attitude, to resist activities imposed upon them, and stop offering beneficial suggestions. When all employees look for ways of doing their jobs better, easier, or faster, then the benefits impact internal customers, suppliers, and the company's bottom line. Subordinates can rely on their expertise, personality, relationships, or ability to work the corporate culture to “sell" changes to colleagues and internal customers and suppliers.

In her role as a Systems Tech intern, Ellen used her superior computer systems knowledge to leverage suggestions for company wide changes. Hired to fix immediate problems, Ellen soon realized the underlying problem was the jumble of computing environments, platforms, applications, and systems within the company.

As she answered service calls, Ellen talked to the professionals she supported. As the “intern" no one expected her to know much about the business. She used her ignorance to good advantage, asking basic questions no one else ever asked.

Ellen not only asked about their problems, but what they wanted their computer to do. She asked about annoying repetitive tasks, “What bugged them about the work of getting their work done. " Soon Ellen was taking a few minutes to explain a nifty tool or feature. Most of the time her lessons would have prevented the problem; other times it was about a technique other employees had found helpful. Soon Ellen was posting a tip of the day on E-mail and offering brown bag sessions in the lunch room.

When the Ops Manager charged Ellen to fix an E-mail mess that caused a major production error, the intern was ready. Instead of just fixing the E-mail, she suggested a comprehensive plan for standardizing the systems and applications. When the Ops Manager hesitated because “no one wants their systems changed, " the professionals supported her. They did not know exactly what she was suggesting but they trusted her suggestions would make their work easier.

As a systems intern, Ellen was in a classic support role. She knew more about her area of responsibility than the professionals she was supporting. Yet, they had much more formal education and standing in the company than she did. She relied on education, teaching them what she knew, in a context of how it could make their jobs easier. As they gained skill and confidence from her lessons, they were more willing to listen to her and support her suggestions for change.

Jack used his personality and reputation to get his internal customers to change. Known for his Yankee thriftiness (friends called him cheap) and his laid back approach to life, Jack could get real ornery when pushed. As the facilities supervisor of a small engineering company, he had to procure or install new equipment or utilities at the last minute. Everything was crucial. They had to have what they wanted right now, tomorrow at the latest. Finally, he posted a large sign on his cubicle: “Your lack of planning does not constitute my crisis. " The sign was the major topic of conversation in the break room that day.

At lunch, Jack just spread out pictures of the house he was building, a much grander, but less costly, house than those of his coworkers. As his own general contractor, he brought every system in under budget and under deadline. He hadn't used overnight package delivery. He'd shopped for the best prices and hadn't paid overtime. “See what's possible with planning?" Jack challenged. “Why should I have to do any less here at work?" Later that day, someone took one of the pictures and taped it to the sign on Jack's door.

Again Jack didn't have the formal education or professional background of the people he supported, but his personality and demonstrable results gave him standing with his group. He showed them what he could do and then challenged them to meet him at his level. There was no denying he could walk his talk.

Mark did not have to sell his boss on making changes. Mark's subordinates were creative and technically astute. They just did not work well together. Meetings went on forever with no real results, sites competed for resources and recognition, and previous team work programs had been demoralizing failures. Mark knew he had to increase skills on the “soft side" of business: communication, team work and visioning. Yet he couldn't use those labels.

Mark asked the organizational consultants he previously used to teach the team work skills his people needed by using the existing technical development review program. He wanted to bring the team work standards up to the level of the technical standards. The consultants facilitated the meetings and set the standards for meeting behavior: defining purpose, setting agendas and discussion guidelines, demanding action lists with deadlines and expected results. As the effectiveness of the development review became visible, other groups started asking the consultants to help them.

Mark knew he could make a turn around in his new group. He also knew the resistance he'd get would be emotional not technical. While honoring the established design and review program, he changed the process of how the team worked the program He leveraged the corporate value for technical excellence to achieve the needed interpersonal changes

Each of these employees used a different approach to suggest change: using their superior knowledge, previous experience or ability to work the culture issues. But the underlying process was the same. They all demonstrated what they could do, built solid relationships with their internal vendors, subordinates, colleagues and customers. Then they leveraged their proposals for change. Their approach, “let me show you how we can both win" insured successful change efforts.

Copyright © 2005 Pat Wiklund. All rights in all media reserved. This article may be reprinted so long as it is kept intact with the copyright and by-line.

Pat Wiklund is known as the One-Person Business Turnaround Specialist. She works with professional services business owners so they can make more money and get more personal satisfaction from their work. Start taking charge of your business and your life with her TakingCharge mini ecourse from her latest book, Taking Charge When You’re Not in Control by sending a blank email to tcnic@1PersonBusiness.com

Contact Pat at Pat@1PersonBusiness.com

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