Let Bottom-up Ideas Drive Change

How many times have you seen a new leader arrive with their bag of tricks and begin to implement change either before they have fully consulted with their leadership team – or worse – despite them? Whether you are in the military, government, or civilian sector, middle managers and senior leaders often rotate in and out of positions many more times than the individuals they are leading. Too many leaders believe they have to show up to a new position with all or most of the good ideas. Successful leaders harvest the great ideas within their organization and develop plans to implement them. Over the past few years, I have begun to employ the following principles to help me find great ideas within the organization I lead. Hopefully, some of these ideas may help you.

  • Employ Tactical Patience – As much as you want to initiate change quickly, remember that activity does not equal productivity. You may be anxious for quick wins. It is far better, however, to take the time to identify what really needs to be changed and then rally support from your organization’s key-influences before you make a decision. Once you decide to recommend changes, make sure you pace the implementation of new ideas at a reasonable rate. If not, you will burn your team out and not affect lasting change. Remember that arriving to a new position eager to implement ideas you brought with you, rather than those you find within your team, means that you are sending a signal about which ideas you value most – yours. If you take the time to engage your team, you will able to find a slew of great ideas, or you might even find that many already share your views. Take your time, and employ some tactical patience, and you will quickly find many eager to have you champion their ideas.
  • Do Not Change the Organization’s Processes Simply to Suit Your Style – Changing schedules, adding meetings, creating new trackers and processes that only aid you and your idiosyncratic leadership style will likely cause undue strain on your team. Your desire to fit the organization to your needs may create headwinds at a time when you are trying to gain buy-in and initiative. You must balance your decision-making needs with the costs in productivity sudden changes may cause your team. When in Rome, lead like a Roman. If you think that your way of doing things is better, before you have determined the “why” behind current processes, you again send a strong message that you care more about your views than others. After you consult with your team’s influencers, you will find that they likely have a number of initiatives they believe could make your organization’s processes better. By raising these up, and make them a priority, you will gain trust and buy-in. You may also learn a new trick or two.
  • Early Investments in Generating Buy-in Equals Long-Term Success – Gaining buy-in equates to earning trust. As Stephen M. R. Covey has noted, you will earn trust through your demonstrated character and established credibility. Building this takes more than scheduling meetings and sending emails. It requires you to take the needed time to build professional relationships with your supervisor(s), peers, and subordinates. Schedule face-to-face encounters early and often. Then make sure you make time in your calendar to make the rounds in person. I cannot stress enough the benefits this investment in presence will have in your long-term success. As you get to know your people, you will not only increase the speed at which your team will share ideas with you, but you will also learn the strengths and weaknesses of your teammates. You will discover the introvert sages as well as the loud-mouth complainers on your team. You will learn who has earned respect. This information will help you recognize whose ideas inside the organization really are worthy of implementation and resources. The sooner you find these influences, and listen to their ideas, the quicker you will find strong allies with great insights.
  • Create Forums to Capture Good Ideas and to Vet Them With Key Influencers – In keeping with the spirit of investing early in generating buy-in, I recommend two approaches to capturing good ideas. One gathers the entire leadership team in one space at one time to hear their ideas discussed. The other employs individual meetings with just you and the leaders of each section of your team. There are pros and cons with both approaches.
    • Everyone Together: By gathering everyone together in a large conference room and running through each section’s ideas, issues, and agendas, you can gain a relatively quick overview while also fostering broader understanding throughout your leadership team. You can also quickly gain a pulse on what your key influencers think about the ideas presented by others. The disadvantage to this approach is that some topics will simply not be put forth due to some of your leadership team’s concerns about their opinions causing friction with others in the meeting. This group approach may be the quickest way to get ideas from the bottom up, but you may not get the full story in such an open setting.
    • One-on-One: Another approach is to schedule one-on-one, or small group meetings with each leader on your team. I have personally found that by asking your leaders to describe their team’s processes, projects, programs, and people, you can quickly gain an understanding of not only their roles and responsibilities, but also what is really troubling them. I typically end these one-on-one sessions by asking these leaders where they would like help from me, and I also ask them what keeps them up at night with respect to their personal area of responsibility. I have them consider what they are personally accountable for in the organization and which is most at risk and would have the greatest impact resulting in the organization’s failure. This last question, collated across my leadership team, typically provides me with those hard to solve tasks and projects that I know I will need to address as top priorities. If I choose to pursue them I also know I will easily gain buy-in from my team. The disadvantage of making the rounds to each subordinate leader, however, is that it takes a great deal of time and others in the team may not gain as much overall understanding
  • Remember This is a Relay-Race – No matter where you fall within an organization’s leadership hierarchy, you will likely hand off your position to a successor. Too many leaders believe what matters most is chalking up a list of accomplishments “they” achieved during their watch. This belief leads to continuous turmoil for their team, as they have to refine and refocus their efforts every year or two when a new leader arrives. The waste in man hours due to shifting priorities, communication requirements, and general confusion resulting from these frequent turn-overs can be debilitating for an organization. As a leader within the organization, it is just as important to gain early situational awareness of the organizations needs as it is to prepare to be replaced by another leader. Once you acknowledge that you will be replaced, you will be less likely to take on projects that will not be sustained after your departure. You will avoid sinking time, money, and manpower into customized processes that only benefit your particularly decision-making style. Finally, you will avoid burning your teammates out as you scramble to “make your mark.” Remember, the ideas that really win over time, are those that grow legs that can sustain them long after any one individual departs. More often than not, this can only be accomplished through grass-roots buy-in.

In conclusion, I cannot stress enough how important it is for a leader’s long-term success that they invest time and energy gaining better situational awareness before they make change. Get to know your organization and your team before you decide which course of action to take. View a new position as an opportunity to adapt to a new environment and be willing to adopt the ideas of your team. You do not have to be the one with all the great ideas to achieve success. In fact, I believe that the majority of great ideas already exist within the ranks of your team. You just need to find a way to mine them.

As always – the views in this piece are mine alone and do not represent the U.S. government, Department of Defense, United States Army, or any other organization with which I have had any association.

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