To lead change, explain context

The sense of being pushed and pulled every which way, without having any broader context or a sense that you’re getting somewhere, is something I see all too often in organizations, as executives try to keep up with new competitors or business trends.

For example, one CEO of a large technology firm oscillated between major expansions and significant contractions several times over the course of just a few years. Each strategic shift, of course, was carefully explained and justified by changing market conditions or opportunities; but the net result within the company was a performance-sapping sense of cynicism. Middle managers had to go back and forth between firing people and finding new ones with different skills, and few people believed that the yearly planning and budgeting cycle was anything more than a painful exercise, since it was always changing midway through.

This case isn’t the exception. Many companies are inconsistent in their strategic direction, often because leaders want to find the next shiny new idea that will transform (or save) the company. But because new initiatives haven’t been positioned as an integrated way of coping with a changing environment, employees have become skeptical about senior management’s ability to secure the future.

People have to see why what they’re doing has to change, why they should suddenly be moving in a new direction. This is even more important when a new executive or team leader takes over. Often, they hope to create a legacy by abandoning old strategies and pursuing new ones. This is all right as long as they explain the rationale behind their actions.

Leaders should also be aware of the many change initiatives and management trends championed by consultants, professors and fellow executives. We’re all familiar with the various fads that roll across the corporate landscape, but many don’t appreciate the impact that these have on employees who are continually being asked to implement one program after another. The business environment changes too fast for any strategy to be perfect at the start. Strategic plans will always need adjustment, learning and iteration – and there will always be new opportunities and approaches cropping up. For many years, GE has done this by carefully positioning each new change initiative as something that builds upon previous foundations.

Creating this kind of context over time is a critical part of the manager’s job. People need to know how to connect the dots, not because they don’t want to follow the next new program, but because they want to make sure that their energy expenditure will be worthwhile and that it will lead somewhere productive. Otherwise the rational thing to do is to stand still (as in our running example) and wait for the different initiatives to roll past, like civil servants waiting for the next election and the next administration.

So if you’re managing people, think about how you can help them connect the dots between the work they’re doing and what it’s meant to achieve. What are the threads that tie together past initiatives and strategic directions with current ones? What are the lessons learned that you can apply to the next project? How have past efforts helped you build capability over time, and how can that help you win as a team and as a company?

By putting change into a longer-term context, whatever you are trying to accomplish may have a better chance of success.

(Ron Ashkenas is a managing partner of Schaffer Consulting.)

© 2015 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Company