Getting people—much less companies—to change can be a complex task. But it doesn’t have to be so challenging, as Cindy Alvarez knows. Alvarez drives entrepreneurial change at Microsoft, and before that, she spent more than a decade leading design, product management, user research, and customer development for startups.
“I’ve always been interested in how people think and how they work,” Alvarez said during a live webcast with Lean Startup Co last fall. She studied psychology at Harvard, and thought she’d become a professor. But when she bought her first computer, she dove into trying to understand it—and then trying to understand other people’s tech-related problems and needs.
Alvarez, who wrote Lean Customer Development: Build Products Your Customers Will Buy and is the director of user experience for the Microsoft company Yammer, offered practical advice during her webcast with us, for those looking to lead change within their organizations.
UNDERSTAND THE CURRENT CULTURE
Understanding the current company culture is crucial if you want to effect change within it. You need to know how people behave in the organization, what they’re afraid of, what their bosses reward them for, how they’ve reacted to previous changes, and whether they get punished for trying new things, says Alvarez. If you understand the constraints that people are working under, you can start providing them with solutions.
To better understand your organization’s culture, Alvarez suggests asking employees about something that went well and something that went badly. You can say, “Walk me through the last project that your team worked on. How did it go from beginning to end? Who came up with ideas? Who approved them? Who worked on them?”
Another useful prompt could be, “Tell me about when someone tried to introduce a change and it didn’t go well.” Follow up with, “Why do you think that was?” The answers will give you a real sense of your company’s tolerance for risk and what mistakes have already been made.
LEADERS CAN ENCOURAGE CHANGE
Leaders can do a lot to promote change so that it sticks. It’s useful if a CEO backs something new, but it’s not sufficient to support a sustainable culture shift. The biggest predictor of how employees behave is how their direct boss acts. So if you’re a manager, lead by example. And communicate clearly about changes and experiments, including following up with your employees and admitting mistakes. Start small and build—changing products might be too big a jump at first, but changing processes (shortening meetings, for example) can happen faster.
If you’re someone whose employees bring suggestions to you, Alvarez suggests that you avoid being a “seagull manager” who “swoops and poops” on ideas. If a manager does that to you, neutrally respond to the quick criticism by clearly presenting the problem you were trying to solve. You could also ask for specific feedback about why your idea isn’t resonating.
ASK QUESTIONS—AND LISTEN TO THE ANSWERS
When trying to make lasting changes in an organization, it’s natural to want to skip to solutions before focusing on the problem. But your first step should be talking to people about what they need. Alvarez suggests asking, “What would you be able to do if things were different?”
Most often, Alvarez says, you’ll hear from an employee, “You need to build this.” Your response to that answer should be, “OK, but why? What would that allow you to do?” If their answer is just, “Well, it would be nice to have,” then don’t build it. But if they’re saying, “I want X because I can’t do Y,” then a good, worthwhile solution might exist, unless Y is something very obscure.
This method of investigating your employees’ stumbling blocks involves a lot of repetition. Train people to ask why when they hear someone say, “I want this.” The answer could identify the problem, which needs to be fully understood before attempting a fix.
Fear can be a powerful deterrent—it can hold your company back and cause dysfunction. So Alvarez recommends that when someone says, “We can’t do that because bad things will happen,” responding with: “What bad things will happen? What’s the worst-case scenario?” People shy away from this type of thinking but it’s really quite freeing. Often, the potential fallout (e.g., “Customers will get mad”) isn’t actually a consequence. Decide beforehand—and without fear—on an acceptable level of risk for your organization.
Also, when conducting experiments, Alvarez suggests asking the people above you: “How much can I spend without you coming in?” Managers don’t want to be approving a lot, so most will respond with something like, “Use your judgment and tell me the results.” Pushing boundaries slowly works well.
Alvarez says that case studies are also important factors in getting manager buy-in. Because everyone’s afraid of screwing up, being able to point to similar scenarios that ended up successful can help. But Alvarez warns that case studies should be deployed with caution—make sure the ones you’re using are appropriate and relevant.
WHAT NOT TO DO IF YOU WANT TO ENCOURAGE CHANGE
Don’t try to be prescriptive, says Alvarez. It’s a mistake everyone makes, but don’t tell someone how they should change. Instead, listen to what they have to say. And avoid asking leading questions, such as “Wouldn’t you like…” and “Don’t you think it’d be easier if…” People’s responses to those questions won’t reflect how they really feel. You’ll get misleading feedback and miss out on big opportunities as a result—this is what sinks a lot of startups during their research phase.
Another counterproductive approach: trying too hard to enforce change. Alvarez warns that you shouldn’t come in with solutions already in mind. In other words, don’t push instead of trying to create pull. People resist change for reasons that seem small but aren’t. “Supposedly irrelevant factors”—or SIFs, as behavioral economists call them—drive most of the reasons people don’t evolve, even when they should.
Is there anything you shouldn’t say when advocating for change? Yes. Alvarez says “minimum viable product” is a phrase to which people only respond negatively. Same thing with “Fail fast,” since it sounds like “Give up right away.” And instead of “You’re doing it wrong,” say, “Tell me what’s not working.”
WHAT YOU CAN TRY RIGHT AWAY
So what can you put into practice immediately to change things within your organization? Alvarez says to think about the things your team grumbles about but that no one has tried to fix. Is it meetings? To make them better, propose an experiment: Instead of having the usual prolonged status update, your team could try posting updates on Yammer. Or give everyone a one-minute talking limit. Try it, then at the end of the week, discuss whether it went well.
You can also shift people’s environment, since physical changes are a good way to inspire change. Alvarez says that visual reminders are helpful. Put up a sign, for example, that says, “What’s the problem?” Or write down the problem and focus on it.
And the next time someone complains, ask that person what should be done about the situation. Then say: “Why should we do that? What’s the problem we need to solve?” You’ll get interesting information that you can move forward with.
Want more? Learn about the Lean Startup methodology on http://2015.leanstartup.co/