Medical Emergencies, Spring Training, and Organizational Change

Thursday, March 8th, 2012

Medical Emergencies, Spring Training, and Organizational Change

As I waited for my dental appointment this morning, another patient had a seizure, which resulted in a local EMT team taking him to a hospital. My dentist told me that something like this had never happened in his 27 years of practice, but his training served him well. He recognized the signs and knew exactly what to do.

It was a good reminder about the importance and power of good training. He and his team knew exactly what to do in the moment. They may have saved that man’s life.

As you might imagine, I thought about change management. (I mean, what else do I think about?) Even though executives and managers face change – and lots of it – all the time, they often don’t have the instincts to know what to do in the moment when a problem occurs. They don’t see the early warning signs or know to call the local EMT unit. Although most leaders have attended some program on change and read a book or two on the subject, that “book learnin’” doesn’t translate into behavioral change. It’s what Pfeffer and Sutton refer to as the knowing-doing gap.

Here are two things that you might consider to help you turn knowledge about change management into action:

Debrief past changes. The US military routinely conducts after action reports: what worked, what didn’t, what should we do next time. And members of the service tell me they take this discipline seriously. A great way to learn is to dissect our past actions so we can build on successes and find alternatives for the things that didn’t work.

Experiment. One of my colleagues at The Gestalt Institute of Cleveland (where I teach a few weeks a year) describes these as safe emergencies. Safe enough that if the activity goes bust, you don’t put your career or the project at risk, but risky enough that it gets your juices going. Too safe and there is no learning. Too risky and there is no learning either because it is often too hard to step back and learn from what just happened.

Here’s how you might create an experiment. Let’s say that you do want to hear people’s opinions and reactions to a proposed change but you are afraid of the meeting getting out of control. To make it safer you could:

  • Ask a select small group to comment, or. . .
  • You could ask just one person for his or her reactions, or. . .
  • You could conduct a short anonymous survey and sit with someone you trust to go over the results, or. . .
  • You could ask your team just one question, or. . .
  • You could put a time limit on the conversation. “Let’s spend the next X minutes talking about”. . .

In addition to learning about reactions to this new project, you want to step back and ask yourself: what did I learn about my skills and reactions when I ask for this type of feedback? Was this easy or hard? How come? Any surprises? What served me well? What didn’t? Is there a way in which I could try a little bit riskier experiment that might increase my ability to get this type of information?

This type of thoughtful practice allows us to learn from mistakes.

As I write this, professional baseball players are in Spring training going over things they learned when they were children. Spring training gives them the luxury of trying out new things, refining problem areas, and getting feedback. Once the season begins and they start to face stiff competition, it becomes harder to step back and reflect. Too bad our organizations don’t offer Spring training.

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