To Move Ahead You Have To Know What To Leave Behind
(Originally published in Harvard Business Review)
Decisions are the most fundamental building blocks of successful change in our organizations, our teams, and our careers. The faster and more strategically we stack those blocks, the faster and more successfully we manage change. Yet, change efforts often stall precisely because those decisions don’t happen.
The question is why?
Avoid Changing By Addition. The Latin root of the word “decide” is caidere which means “to kill or to cut.” (Think homicide, suicide, genocide.) Technically, deciding to do something new without killing something old is not a decision at all. It is merely an addition.
When an executive announces that her business will change to become a luxury service provider, technically it is not a decision until she also states that they will notprovide low cost services to price-sensitive customers anymore.
When a sales manager declares that his strategy this quarter will require his salespeople to spend more time strengthening existing customer relationships, he has only made an addition until he also declares that they should spend less time on something else like hunting for new prospects.
Your palms might be sweating at the mere thought of telling your team to ignore some group of paying customers or to not spend time hunting for new business, even if you really want to see the change happen. Research has shown that making tradeoffs is so mentally exhausting that most people try to avoid them whenever possible. That’s why a manager who is no stranger to long hours and hard work will escape the discomfort simply by piling on new change objectives without killing any of the current priorities.
But this change-by-addition approach can be a death blow.
Avoid Trickle-Down Tradeoffs. When team leaders fail to decide which old directions are going to be sacrificed in service of the new direction, the tradeoff doesn’t magically disappear. It simply slides down the ladder. Instead of the team leader leaning into the discomfort and deciding once that the team is going to spend this quarter strengthening existing customer relationships, and not actively hunting for new prospects, each team member now has to decide for themselves whether to call on an existing customer or go find a new one every time they pick up the phone, open their email, or hop in the car.
Trickle-down tradeoffs create two major problems for change efforts. First, they undermine team alignment toward the change. It is highly unlikely that each team member will independently arrive at the same conclusion about what to do and what not to do. Part of the team will choose to move in one direction while the other part moves in another direction — the very definition of misaligned.
Second, psychologists have shown that making tradeoffs depletes our overall mental capacity and causes us to make poorer judgments in completely unrelated situations. This phenomenon is why otherwise healthy eaters end a long afternoon at the mall of choosing between stylish shoes and comfortable shoes by feasting on a hearty dinner of French fries and Cinnabons. They have no mental energy left to make good dieting decisions.
Similarly, when your team has to spend a long morning making tradeoffs it leads to long afternoons of either staring at the wall and web-surfing, or making poor choices for their customers, their workloads, and their budgets.
To Lead Is To Decide. Making change decisions is a cognitively and emotionally taxing activity that the average person will go to great lengths to avoid. While I have discovered some techniques for increasing the consistency and reliability of our decisions, there is no proven way of completely eliminating the discomfort of making tradeoffs. That might be a key element of what makes great leaders great. Great leaders and change agents have come in all shapes, sizes, colors, genders, and personality types.
But the one thing they all seem to have in common — the one thing that distinguishes them from ordinary people — is their willingness to decide when others could not.