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Interview: Seth Kahan on Getting Change Right

I met Seth Kahan, virtually, after I decided to participate in the Washington Gathering on Radical Management. So I downloaded his book on getting change right. While browsing through the table of contents, I came on the section 'Jumpstart Storytelling' - I jumped to it directly!

My reaction? "Wow, this guy really does know about making change happen!" So I am all the more honored and enthusiastic to be part of the gathering. We corresponded a bit on the change process - here is an excerpt from our discussion:

Peter Stevens: You have written about getting change right. What is the wrong way to go about change?

Seth Kahan: The biggest drain on momentum and brainpower in change efforts today is obsession with the project plan. I have seen more projects flounder and die because leaders and consultants are hammering out finely detailed project plans rather than engaging people.

People create project plans for many reasons. Here are three I see often:
  1. It is tempting to imagine how you will create change. The downside is that people get sidetracked into imagining it rather than doing it.
  2. It is challenging to engage people. This requires good interpersonal skills and a willingness to repeatedly open up messy conversations. Many technical experts prefer to avoid this.
  3. People often confuse building a mental model with the real thing. But until the rubber hits the road, you have accomplished nothing.
It's true that a project plan is useful and even necessary in most situations. It's a question of appropriate emphasis. When I am after change, I want to make things happen--get results, reap rewards. This happens through people, interactions, networks of conversations, and people working together.

Project planning is a support process. Engagement is the main event. It's where people shift attitudes and behavior. You do not want the project planning to occur at the expense of engagement, replace conversation, delay interactions, or exclude participation. Instead, you need to become expert at getting people involved in co-creating the future, jump-starting bold conversations that draw people in, and triggering professional excitement.

PS: What advice would you give to a first level manager who wants to effect a change in his/her organization?

SK: The same advice I would give for a C-Level Executive! First you must know what you are trying to do. This is probably the most powerful and least developed building block I run into when helping people create worthy change. They are generally filled to the brim with jargon, but when you dig down deep to find out exactly what they want the details are frustratingly sparse.

Once you are clear about your intentions, you must identify the Most Valuable Players (MVPs). This is the select group of people who will be responsible for your success – the ones who will make it happen.

In sports, an MVP is often isolated from the team, recognized for prowess and performance that goes beyond team playing and exceptional individual achievement. But, your MVPs include every person of influence and anyone who plays for your cause.

Make no mistake: all business success depends on people. The action people take is the performance that makes things happen. Your MVPs are human beings; blood and guts; hearts, minds, and hands. If you treat them respectfully and appropriately, you will increase the already powerful impact they wield: their ability to wring results from an uncertain future.

Some of your MVPs will emerge completely unsolicited. You may never even meet them. Instead, you will hear about them far outside your own sphere of action. When your success travels far and wide, outpacing you, this is the case. However, this does not obviate the need for VIP attention to members of this special crew.

Many MVPs can be turned on like a light bulb. By that, I mean they are dormant until you come along with an invitation to be part of something special. If you make it possible for them to contribute in ways that are meaningful to them, you may observe someone who appears dull and lifeless suddenly perk up and become engaged. This is because many people are trapped in uninteresting, lackluster jobs or situations that have worn them down. Engaging them by simply inviting them to give more and get more for themselves in the process awakens them.

Other MVPs are already high performers and latch on to great new ideas because that is their way. They pick up whatever innovations make sense, anything that helps raise the bar on performance, or anything that is part of a greater cause they support.

Once people express an interest in helping out, you must provide them with everything they need to succeed. Just as specific tools are needed to do a particular job well, your MVPs need skills, information and relationships to make their work effective. Make every effort to equip them with the best you have to offer as their results can make all the difference in your success.

PS: What does getting change right have to do with Radical Management?

SK: Steve Denning (author of The Leader’s Guide to Radical Management) and I have been thinking and working together for over 15 years and our thinking is inextricably linked. Fundamentally we share the same views and hope for humanity. Each of us is doing our level best to help the world of work evolve so that it becomes more humane and a more worthy expression of the human spirit.

Radical Management codifies the emerging knowledge about how people work best together, achieving results that go beyond satisfied workers and extend to generating value for the world at large. My work is about how to engage people, bring out their best, and generate transformation as a result. Everything I have written is embedded in Steve’s work.

My processes provide people who want to implement Radical Management with concrete step they can take to bring the change to life.

PS: Why is the gathering in DC so important to you and what are your hopes for what will take place?

SK: This is a coming together of a unique collection of powerfully innovative thinkers. It will be first of all, an opportunity for a group to meet face-to-face that has the noblest of aspirations, and, secondly, a bastion of practical guidance. I look forward most to the camaraderie and the results we generate together.

PS: Thank you Seth! I look forward to meeting you at the Gathering.

Come join us at an event where coolness, innvoation and serious fun intersect: the Washington Gathering: Revolutionizing the World of Work. These two days, hosted by Steve Denning and Seth Kahan, will be dedicated to remaking the management mindset; that is, reinventing business, government, education, and health. I am proud to participate as a practice partner! More information... Register...


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