Shift Your Intention, Change the Outcome

Guest post by author Rick Maurer:

Late last year, I was invited to revise my 1996 book, Beyond the Wall of Resistance. I was stunned to learn that the failure rate of change was still 70 percent after al these years.

There are many things that distinguish those who lead change well from those who don’t,

I only have space to tell you about one, and that’s the power of your intention. Sounds a little woo-woo, right? Bear with me, I think you’ll see just how valuable this notion of shifting our intentions can be.

There is a tendency to focus on tools and techniques as we try to get better in any endeavor whether its music, sports, graphic arts, or leadership. But skills alone don’t create mastery. I’ve worked with musicians who can play fast and high and yet its hard to find the music within that flurry of sound. Clearly, we need to have skills, but that’s not where it should start. It starts with clear intention.

1. Identify Your Intention

If I could follow you around and ask you what your intention is at various moments as you lead a major change, you might be surprised at your responses. Getting past the fact that most of us don’t think a lot about our intention before we act, you might say, “Well, my goal was to. . .”

Goals and intentions are different. A goal is what we want to accomplish. Intention is the way in which we want to meet that goal. So, for example, let’s say my goal is to get a project completed on time and within budget. Then you ask, “So, Rick, what’s your intention?” And I draw a blank. And that lack of knowing my intention could mark the difference between success and failure.

If my goal is to bring this project in on time and within budget, there are many ways in which I could intend to get that accomplished. For example, my intention might be. . .

• To get everyone engaged in planning and implementation, or

• To seek advice from people who I respect, or

• To demand compliance from everyone, or

• To hire mercenaries (or consultants) to make sure the job gets done right.

Each of those intentions brings with it very different sets of behaviors from me and those who fall under the spell of this way of working.

Ask yourself, what would I like my intention to be when I lead a major change? Here are some things to prompt your thinking:

• to learn from successes and failures

• to be willing to be influenced by others

• to believe in people’s capacity to change

2. Find Your Pattern

Most of us have habitual ways of doing things. Our intentions usually don’t change dramatically unless we choose to revise them.

Consider writing a story of how you led a change with some detail. Don’t evaluate as you tell your story, just tell it. For example, don’t write “we held a planning meeting, a bunch of people came, it worked pretty well, and then we assigned tasks. . .” Rather, “I worked with my senior team to design the agenda for a planning meeting that involved close to 100 people from various functions and levels in the organization. Not everyone on my team agreed with my desire to get so many people involved. We discussed the pros and cons of various approaches. . .” The difference is that the second example provides more context. As you recall that story, you should feel like you are reliving the experience.

Step back and imagine that this is someone else’s story. What would you say his or her overall mindset was and what were this person’s intentions along the way. In particular, look at:

• How you got things started

• Who you included and who you either chose to exclude or “forgot” to include

• How you responded when people pushed back with some emotion

• Points where your leadership was put to a test. What did you do during those times?

This retrospective look at how you lead change can give you a much better picture of your mindset and intentions, Arthur Schopenhauer wrote, “it is in the trifles – when he is off guard that a man best reveals his character.” (Same goes for women, but apparently Schopenhauer didn’t know that.)

3. Get Under the Hood

Sometimes you’ve got to lift up the hood to see why the car isn’t running the way you’d like. In Immunity to Change, Kegan and Lahey invite people to identify what they truly want and then list all the things that they are doing or not doing that works against that goal.

That’s a great thing to do with regard to your intentions as a leader of change: identify the things you currently are doing – or not doing — that gets in the way of embodying that way of approaching change.

Getting under the hood keeps you (and me) from pretending that we really are living consistently with what we espouse.

In Kegan and Lahey call these “hidden commitments.” They believe that these commitments have as much power as our conscious and “more noble” aspirations. For example, say that I want to be influenced by your thinking on a particular issue that is near and dear to both of us. And, once I scratch the surface, I realize that I am also committed to preserving my status as the brightest guy in the room. (This is a rather common set of conflicting goals that you find in many organizations.)

Once I understand that the competing intentions and goals inside of me, then I’ve got options.

I wish you well.

This post is adapted from Rick Maurer’s book, Beyond the Wall of Resistance: Why 70% of Changes Still Fail and What You Can Do About It (Bard Press, 2010).