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Change Leadership Part 2 - Failure Factors

Updated: Sep 24, 2020

SpaceX’s First Frontier – Managing Change – To Do What No One Has Done Before

On March 30, 2017, SpaceX achieved the world’s first reflight of an orbital rocket. This could only happen because they figured out how to land the first stage of the rocket on a barge in the Atlantic Ocean. This engineering feat has the potential to reduce the cost of traveling to space by a hundredfold.

SpaceX leaders faced incredible obstacles even before the company began operating in 2002. How could this tiny privately-owned firm do what NASA had been unable to do?

In last week’s Change Leadership - Part 1, we used John Kotter’s model of leading change to identify four Change Failure Factors usually found in poorly led change efforts. This blog will explore the other four factors Kotter identified and provide ideas on how to succeed where others have failed.

For SpaceX, failure factors such as underestimating the power of vision (#3) and (#4) and under communicating the vision were not to be found.

The vision was and is crystal clear: “…to revolutionize space technology, with the ultimate goal of enabling people to live on other planets.” “SpaceX is like Special Forces… we do the missions that others think are impossible. We have goals that are absurdly ambitious by any reasonable standard, but we’re going to make them happen. We have the potential here at SpaceX to have an incredible effect on the future of humanity and life itself.” Truly inspirational vision.

Change Failure Factors Five Through Eight

Permitting obstacles to block the new vision - Change leaders are not blind to obstacles; they use them as challenges. All the usual things that arise to block progress, such as historical process or technological limitations, thinking traps, and “can’t do” thinking are regarded as just expected parts of the process of moving forward. Empowering others to act, to actively challenge the status quo, and encouraging risk-taking become the expectations.

Leaders model the behavior that avoids waiting for perfection rather than taking actions that clearly include risks. They show others that non-traditional thinking will be rewarded. Risks that don’t work out are regarded as lessons not as failures.

Failing to create short-term wins - Leaders understand that positive emotion drives actions. They know there will be lots of mistakes, errors, and risks that don’t work out – but they don’t dwell on them since they understand the need to overcome obstacles and encourage the vision. They don’t see their job as stomping out errors and preventing all failures. They plan for small successes and find creative ways to celebrate them, even in the midst of other things going wrong. They constantly look for people taking smart risks and learning from success and failure – and they celebrate the successes and the learning. People learn that their efforts and risk taking matter.

Declaring victory too soon - The need for a leadership ‘political’ win can sometimes overwhelm even strong leaders. They are tempted to announce that success is within sight and that project completion is imminent – even when front line workers see a long and questionable road to success. Problems arise when leaders are not on the same page as the workgroup. Declaring victory prematurely sucks the positive emotions out of the workforce since they cannot see or experience the success. It sets up barriers between the team and the leader as the work inevitably backs up, the expected successes don’t arrive on time, and people believe their leaders are out of touch.

Neglecting to anchor changes firmly in the corporate culture - Changing technology and/or work processes does not necessarily change the behavior of the workforce. Research is clear that more than 50 percent of change efforts do not produce the results expected. A workforce that resists changes can become amazingly creative in how it can fall back on old ways of doing things.

Leaders need to be certain that the new behaviors expected are clearly defined, imbedded into performance management and incentive processes, and are well understood and supported by managers throughout the organization. Front line managers can become the focal points for resistance – if they are allowed to do so by default.

Rather than declare victory, leaders show leadership by being present, personally overseeing how the changed processes/technology work, and show they are personally involved and invested. This is when exceptions must be addressed; people need to see that expectations for performance have changed in reality, not just on paper. The stories of successes, of customer relationships, of rewards, and even those instances where resisters are confronted will quickly be communicated throughout the organization. Carefully attending to each aspect of institutionalizing the change into the culture will pay big benefits; not doing so puts at risk the investment in the change.

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