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All Change Comes Through People

It does sound catchy doesn't it? Well it's true.  The best ideas can fall flat as a pancake if they aren't channelled through people who can make it happen.  It doesn't matter if you are the committee chair of your department, president of a non-profit organization, or a shift supervisor, if you can't channel your ideas through those you work with, you can't affect change. If you are working with volunteers, then you need their buy-in more than anything.  If you don't have it, nothing happens, if you lean on them, they will just walk-out on you. 

The key to making change is translating your concept of the future into a language that others can understand.  Sometimes it is easy enough to explain it to them, but if it is a real change, they will need more definition, they will need to see it.  Put away the overhead projector, I am not talking about a PowerPoint presentation.  For them to see your vision you need to project it with your sincerity.  The words that you choose, the metaphors that you color with, and maybe even a hand sketch or two on a white board or piece of paper will do just fine.  The key ingredient is your enthusiasm coupled with what your future vision will bring to those you need to execute the plans.

Sometimes, when your vision is being transmitted, your reciepients may take such ownership that they want to change it.  This is not always a bad thing, and it is important that you incorporate the input of others while preserving the key elements of your own vision.  If you react brashly to their input, or respond condescendingly, you risk losing their support and their contribution to executing change.  Sometimes their input will sidetrack the project, so good judgement and tact are a must.  Easier said than done, I know, but the subtlties are what decide the fate of any group effort.

Back in the mid 90's I was participating on a cross-divisional commodity purchasing team.  About seven of us were assembled from different divisions to come up with criteria and a system to purchase a certain type of supply commodity on a corporate level.  I was by far the youngest in the group at 27.  Most of the other seven members plus the hired facilitiator were in their mid 30's through their 50's.  I had just recently been given a promotion to become the plant hydraulics and lubrication engineer, and was eager to make some changes in how oils, greases and hydraulic fluids were used in the mill.  While on the committee, our job was to find a way to reduce corporate costs of lubricants by 10%. 

We would meet at different locations every 2-3 months, in an attempt to be fair in travel to all those on the committee.  As a group we also toured different facilities to see how prospective suppliers ran their commodity management programs.  Most times, the meetings and tours turned into BS sessions with very little work getting done.  Now, you may find this hard to believe, but when I was a little younger, I was brash, opinionated, arrogant, with just a twist of judgemental (just a spritz actually).  After about six months when progress wasn't proceeding at my pace, I became irritated with the process.

I went to speak with my predecessor, who was well regarded in the field of hydraulics as well as the field of training and deveopment.  I would often bounce ideas and test my troubleshooting with Jim B. since he had extensive experience from years as a field engineer for a supplier, and as a systems engineer with our company.  He had recently earned a PhD in Education while working full time as the Manager of Training and Development at our company. Which I now know from my own pursuits of higher education is no small task.  I complained to Jim about how banal this whole committee business seemed, and how I felt I was wasting my time working with the other members on something I could do myself.  I went on and on about how all they wanted to do was eat and drink at the company's expense, and how we weren't accomplishing a thing.  Jim sat there and took in my rant with his normal stoic expression and at the end of it simply said ," David, you need to learn to work with them, you won't be able to do this on your own."  I asked "Why not?", and he replied " . . because all change comes through people . . ."  Like a bullet in the head, I understood exactly what he meant.  I pocketed my frustration, took a double dose of patience (not easy to come by when you are filled with piss and vinegar), and spent the next six months working through the details with the group as we came to a successful conclusion and maintenance contract with a new vendor.

In the end, I realized that all the eating, drinking, joking, and cajoling that went on in those meetings was acutally the most productive part.  When people from different locations and backgrounds get together, the best thing you can do together is relax and cut-up a little to break down the barriers.  Once everyone knows what each member needs and is looking for, the real healing can begin.

I always had grandiose plans of writing a book about middle managements, and using Jim's quote as a memorable graphic on the first page.  Well, I am not going to wait for a book deal, since this blog might be the closest I ever get. 

Thanks Jim


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