What Do Phases of Matter Have To Do With The Chief of Staff’s Role in Leading Change?
April 29, 2019
If you follow science news, you might have noticed a recent article from National Geographic about how a new phase of matter has been confirmed as solid and liquid at the same time. What I found interesting was that new phases like this are not only being discovered but are posited to be most likely in extreme environments, like potassium in the earth’s mantle where there’s extreme heat and pressure. This got me thinking about large-scale, organizational change, where there is often extreme external or internal pressure driving the change but also people doing their jobs in a current state.
When I was chief of staff implementing a cross-departmental process change, or orchestrating a restructuring of the organization, I and the teams I worked with were really good at articulating the as-is state of the org and the desired state of the org, but we were not always as good at articulating what would happen in what we called the “messy middle,” or that state where people weren’t sure if they’re working in the old world or the new one. Even if we took a phased approach to rolling something out, with clear deliverables and milestones, there would inevitably arise an unforeseen issue, unintended consequence, or ambiguity that needed to be worked through. That “messy middle” seems like the organizational equivalent of being in two matter phases at the same time.
The March 2019 HBR features not just one but two articles highlighting some failures of leaders who neglected to take into account the defensive reactions of people who were being asked to change the way they do things. And there’s a lot of change management literature on winning hearts and minds during change, but I particularly liked The Collaboration Blind Spot because instead of broad generalities like, “Find what’s in it for them” or “Put the right incentives in place,” this article focused very specifically on the types of defensiveness that people exhibit most frequently and concrete strategies for dealing with each one.
In order to partner with each member of the leadership team, you have to know where you stand with each one and, if you’re seen as a threat, understand which kind of threat and address that. If you’re not familiar with Peter Block’s framework for negotiating with Allies and Adversaries, it’s another good one to use to see where you stand relative to each stakeholder you interact with. There are many similar approaches, and they have their relative advantages and disadvantages, but the main thing is that you force intentionality into the relationships you pursue and how you pursue them.
By doing so, you learn to push through “the messy middle” to your desired destination.