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  • Gilbert Kruidenier

Asking the right questions for (a) change

Picture of a purple and white 5 legged star fish

About a month ago I was fortunate to share the room with some very exceptional people in Daryl Conner’s 2017 Melbourne Raising Your Game course. The name might give you the wrong idea, this 2.5-day course is about character and presence and how to add exceptional value for your clients in complex change management scenarios by bringing your best self to the job.

One of the key take-aways for me was how you need a set of contract conversation questions to determine if it’s something you want to get involved with. Daryl being the change management equivalent of Yoda needs only three questions and refers to them as his tri-pod. As a work in progress I need at least five. My course partner Kym and I tried to come up with a fitting analogy for something with five legs and used the working title of desk-chair model but it felt a bit ‘meh’.

A few days later I saw a five-legged star fish and knew I had found my change spirit animal! There are many fun facts about star fish, but the coolest by far is that if they lose one of their legs, they can grow it back, always returning to five (some have more). An excellent reminder that I always need to ask the following five questions, because the answers will tell me if this is the right change for me:

1. Can you describe the change to me?

2. What are you looking to accomplish?

3. Why is this urgent?

4. What will happen after I leave?

5. Do you already have a solution?

Here’s how my contracting used to go. I show up to the interview, listen to what it is company X wants to achieve and think: ‘I can make that work, when do I start?!’ We do the contract courtship dance and I after a couple of weeks I find out that it’s not what I was told/wanted to believe but something completely different. The bad kind of different. Damn it, done it again!

During the explorative stage conversations, I am supposed to listen and look for cues and clues that are either encouraging or warning signs. When there are many warning signs and little encouragement to be had, it’s probably not my kind of change. It’s at that point I really should bring out my star fish but often don’t. What does happen is I go into ‘this-superhero-will-fix-it-mode’ and as soon as I find out what's what for real, I am often already committed to delivering on a promise I probably should not have made to begin with to people who now have placed all their faith, expectations and trust in me. I hope my star fish will help you find your kind of change by asking the right questions, which are often also the hard questions.

1. Can you describe the change to me?

First and foremost, I need to find out what the client means when they talk about change. What happens in their heads, the image they see so to speak. I like the changes that make a true impact, the ones that build capacity for growth, that unlock potential for a future of work storming at us and change that (re)connects teams to strategic purposes so they start enjoying work again. If that’s not on the table, I should probably not do it and leave it to someone else.

Table with encouraging and warning signs belonging to the question: Can you describe the change for me?

2. What are you looking to accomplish?

Forget about money, career, mortgage payments and reputation for a few minutes. Would you still be doing what you’re doing for a job now? Congrats if that’s a solid yes! I hear you, when that’s a solid no. I’ve gotten better at finding organisations with a cause I care about instead of just finding an organisation who’s looking to accomplish a project. I hardly ever get the sense that people are intentionally trying to deceive me when I come in to discuss a potential job or project. However, I do often get answers that sound like rehearsed lines, the result of one executive workshop too many or people trying to avoid feeling embarrassed about the state of things. It’s my responsibility (and not the client’s) to do the due diligence and ask at least one more question about what they are looking to accomplish and if the responses for question one and two are in sync, I will start to have a pretty good idea of my ‘fit’.

Table with encouraging and warning signs belonging to the question: What are you looking to accomplish?
3. Why is this urgent?

A true sense of urgency helps me focus and makes organisations do what they thought impossible before. I consider myself a builder, not a maintainer and know I get bored when asked to just mind the shop. When bored I do two things; clean things and cause mischief. At some point I will run out of things to clean and will be left with just one option…The worst answer ever to this question was: ‘Well…everyone else seems to be doing it…?’. This was not a small organisation and it wasn’t about a trivial topic like a new operating system or a reorganisation, it was a culture change. Or so they thought. It never happened.

Table with encouraging and warning signs belonging to the question: Why is this urgent?

4. What will happen after I leave?

The answers to this question will tell me everything I need to know about the level of ownership and involvement to expect. Another benefit of this turn of phrase is that the client understands I am not looking to start my next 25-year career path with them. I come in to do a job, which is to help a change happen by building capability in the organisation so they can keep up the good work without me. Eventually I will leave to the next job, please keep that in mind and make arrangements to preparefor that. This pressure is good for both parties as I am continuously reminded of my self-imposed deadline and commited outcomes and the client is reminded that they need to own the change and all its supporting activities by themselves at some point.

Table with encouraging and warning signs belonging to the question: What will happen after I leave?

5. Do you already have a solution?

This is possibly the toughest one to get right for me. The project manager in me loves a clear directive, the change manager in me understands it doesn’t work that way for changes that excite me. I am seeing a very positive trend that as a profession we are moving away from offering templated and methodised solutions, instead focusing on helping clients accept that modern day change is often complex (no ready solution) and no longer just complicated (hard but known solutions). The answers to this final question will help me understand if I am asked to ‘roll out’ a change or co-design a unique solution that is yet unknown. If it’s a roll out, I should probably not do it. Even if it’s global or a billion-dollar thing, because in the end that often turns out to be change being done to people and not with people and that’s not for me.

Table with encouraging and warning signs belonging to the question: Do you already have a solution?

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