Introducing new ideas where there are old well-established practices can be difficult.  You need to remember that there are reasons that the processes and systems were created. They were the best thinking of their time. But, even the best practices need to be updated, tweaked, or eliminated. Suggesting changes can be tricky. Asking employees to leave a "safe port" for the uncharted waters of a new idea can be looked upon, at best, as a dubious suggestion; at worst, it can look like a "suicide mission." Mistakes will be made and from the process, hopefully, learning will emerge.

Consider Jillian and Tom.  Jillian is a senior executive, and supervisor of Tom, who wants to change the process they use to prioritize the team's work and avoid last minute crises--where the team has to drop everything else it is doing to get an urgent project done.  Tom is the supervisor that has to carry out the work with the employees he supervises.  

The Story

Jillian: Tom, we need to find a better way to track our projects.  Last week we had to "drop everything" to get that order out the door and we can't keep having that happen!

Tom: That wasn't our fault. The customer didn't commit to a firm date when they made the order then called and demanded it get done immediately.

Jillian: True, but we have had several projects that almost "slipped through the cracks" and I'd like to have a better system.

Tom: "Our system is not the problem! Besides we've tried other ways to track our projects and we always come back to this. It isn't perfect but it works.

Jillian: Well, I think we could create a system that helps us avoid these problems.

Tom: Are you ready for the team to fight you on this one? They're not going to be happy about a new manager messing with a system that has been working just fine!

Managers often face "resistance" when introducing new ideas.  When met with resistance it is easy to blame employees for not being flexible, team players, or just label them as unwilling to change. This can be especially challenging for new managers or managers whose orientation is to try and build their team through collaborative processes--especially if the leader wants to avoid conflict.

Often managers have no training at all in how to approach these conversations. Thus they wind up in "power struggles," conflict, and win-lose scenarios.

Consider the following conversation and how it differs from the scenario above . . .  then we'll outline steps leaders can take to increase the likelihood of successfully introducing new ideas.

The Story (Revised)

Jillian: Tom, what do you think about our system of tracking projects?

Tom: (Wearily) I guess it's okay.  It works.

Jillian: What is it that about the system that works well?

Tom: We generally know what is coming up. We can assign projects so that customers don't have a long wait for their products.

Jillian: I agree. The systems is useful for assigning the  work and the team really cares about getting the projects to the customers. Is there anything about the system that isn't working well?

Tom: No. I think it works well.

Jillian: I'm not trying to find fault with what we do. I am just wondering if there are any times that the system is not working optimally.

Tom: Only when customers don't give us firm delivery dates.

Jillian: Interesting. What happens when we don't get a firm date for a project?

Tom: Well, you know . . . it just kind of "hangs out there" until we get the date.

Jillian: Is that what happened with that project last week?

Tom. Yes.

Jillian: It's my understanding that we had time to do this project earlier when we were "slow." Do you agree?

Tom: I suppose so. But we were refining the projects that were due . . . they had priority.

Jillian: Right. That's our process . . . to work on projects that have a confirmed due date. If the customers always gave us a confirmed due date when they ordered would that help us avoid the "all hands on deck" crisis we had last week?

Tom: Well, yeah! But customers aren't always going to give us a commitment to a date.

Jillian: True. What do you think about us assigning a target date for projects where customers have not committed to a delivery date?

Tom: Some of those don't turn into orders. We could waste time on a project that never becomes an order.

Jillian: That's true and I certainly don't want us taking away time from actual orders to work on "iffy" projects. During busy times the confirmed dates should take precedence. But do you see any problems with setting the dates and during slow times working on these projects? Even if a few "fell through" would it be worth it to avoid emergency days like last week?

Tom: I dunno. Maybe. 

Jillian: What impact does an emergency like last week have on our team?

Tom: Well, the guys weren't happy about it, I know that. They grumbled all day about the customer . . . and it's always the same customers!

Jillian: I know it wasn't my favorite day. I'm happy to jump in and help when we have a crisis, I just wonder if there is a way to reduce the number of times this happens?

Tom: What are you suggesting?

Jillian: Well, I've been wondering how it would work to tweak our system to set dates for all projects. We would still have to be clear on which projects were actually orders and which ones are our priorities but I think you have a good handle on that already.  I am wondering if setting dates would help us use slow times to work on these "uncommitted" projects and avoid the emergency "fire drill" days.

Tom: I see where you're going . . . 

Reframing! Steps toward change.  

Just like new frames on a person's glasses or a new frame on a picture the context in which we are seeing issues will be different if the context changes. Many of our conflicts are due to different ways in which we frame problems. Is a teenager "disrespectful" or "trying to figure out life?" Is the parent "uncaring" or "tired and confused?" We all approach problems with a framework that limits what we see as possible.

Below, are six steps you can follow to try and help your employees move toward reframing issues from "can't do it" to "okay, let's try it."  From "we have always done it this way and it works" to "maybe it is time to re-think it and try something else."  Of course there is nothing magical about this "formula>" It is just a good reminder of "best practices" that you can use as a guide. (Memory Pneumonic?  MTIFPR)

  1. Get a Map. Take a aurvey of their view (See free eBook on Engaging Your Team). To help employee embrace changes you need to understand how they currently view the territory. Their views are based primarily on real data (not emotions although they can be involved) that you need to understand. The change will have an impact both good and bad. Leaders need to take time to understand the Map the employee is operating from.

  2. Select a Target. Pick an area or argument for reframing. Making changes takes time. Abrupt shifts are called "natural disasters" and "trauma." Sometimes large changes have to happen quickly--if the existence of the organization or people's jobs are threatened--but most of the time big changes are best accomplished in a stair-step gradual process. If the change is important it is worth the time to help it grow to be a strong component of the company.

  3. Gather Intelligence. Collect detailed information about that area to aid in a reframe. Leaders who want to make changes need to really be interested in the details of the employee's map. Here the leader "drills down" into the details of the area that he or she wants to try and change. You need to be able to anticipate where resistance is likely to occur and why. What are the real concerns of employees? Will the change have negative affects? What will they not want to give up for the new idea?

  4. Float the new idea and listen for resistance. Before introducing the "whole reframe" it is good to float a "test balloon." This is usually in the form of a question, "Have you ever wondered what would happen if . . . " or "Do you think we could tweak the process to keep X (the benefits) but eliminate Y (the targeted problem)? Pay special attention to any objections at this point. If the objections remain strong then you may need to drop the idea for now, spend more time surveying the territory, gathering more data, or even come up with a different idea altogether.

  5. Outline the Plan. This is where you introduce the Reframe. If you sense that the employee was open to the "trial balloon" then you can move forward to introduce the reframe. This is usually couched in the form of a proposal: "Given what you are telling me, why don't we try a trial run of setting dates to the "uncommitted projects?" We can then revisit in in three months and see if it has helped or not." At his point you are "armed" with all the information to help the employee see the benefits of your plan. You know the problems the old system has created. You know how the new plan could help the team. You've gained a "conceptual agreement" with your trial balloon that changes could be helpful. And, finally, the employee knows that you have done your homework.

  6. Respond to feedback. Sometime despite your best efforts resistance can re-emerge when the reframe is introduced. It this happens then the reframe is not likely to work. However, often you may get a wary, "Well, I guess we can try it." Which can be responded to with a comment like, "I appreciate your willingness to give it a try. I know this has the biggest effect on you and your team. You've done a really good job with the old system and I hope this might help make it better for everyone. But if not, we'll do something different."

Common pitfalls that lead to failure: . .

  1. Telling not listening. Surveying the territory cannot be rushed. Make sure to map it thoroughly. Be “quick to listen” and “slow to speak;” doing the latter only when you know, really know, the terrain.

  2. Statements not questions.  Telling employees what you know . . . "Come on, you know we can do this!" -- instead of asking for their wisdom, ideas, and support often backfires.

  3. Anger not understanding.  Anger often conveys judgement and is seen, at times, as a means to control others. A patient supervisor who takes the time to understand and guides the employees to new ways of thinking and operating will truly be valued. No one likes a bully..

  4. Quick fix not daily effort.  Real changes take time  . . . and effort.  Rarely are quick fixes to real problems successful.  Leaders have to give daily effort to engaging employees in the change process. Don't let impatience or frustration drive your actions.

  5. Power not humility.  Leaders often lose when they have to play the "power card." Yes, there are times when a leaders has to exert the responsibility of his or her position and use the power of their office to prevent harm to others, the company, or customers. But leaders who rely on power tactics have already lost the war. Employees will respond to poser tactics but only as long as you have the ability to exert that power over them. If you lose that control the "peasants" will revolt and you will be thrown down.

  6. “Preaching the walk” not leading the walkers; or“You first!” It should be obvious that no one wants to follow someone’s directives if they believe that the leader themselves would not put themselves in the same situation or expect the same performance themselves. Even a leader who “listens” rather than “tells” will be judged, by those with insight and wisdom, by what they actually do not what they say.


Engaging Your Team: A framework for leading "difficult" people.

Lessons Learned Around the World: People-centered leadership,A. Keith Miller, Major, U.S. Airforce (Retired)

Family Legacy: Protecting family in family business.

Private Practice Contracting: A path away from insurance dependency.