Change Begins with the Agreement

Tips for enabling change, one small step at a time
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Let’s say you’re running a boatyard and your team is having trouble getting things done on time. It’s been that way all season and, actually, for a lot longer than you care to admit.

Is the problem your leadership or your people? Or how about the systems, yard layout, or available tools and machinery? The answer might be some of each, but let’s look at the question through a different lens called “the agreement.”

An agreement makes a statement about the terms of a relationship between two or more parties. In your business, a web of agreements influences how the work gets done. There are agreements between management and staff, customers, suppliers, contractors, subcontractors — the list goes on. Normally, you can adjust only one agreement at a time, a reality that can make it difficult to decide where to start when you want to make changes.

But what if it’s not so important where you start? In my experience as a leadership coach, making the decision to get going, even on one small agreement at a time, is what counts. When my clients choose their topic, the desired outcome and the value that our discussion will bring them, we call that the agreement for our coaching session. For the next 60 minutes, that’s what we will talk about.

In your world, let’s say you decide to focus on a strategy for researching, installing and training your team on new software to manage workflow. As client and coach, we might work on this over a few sessions, clarifying the outcome you want, stating how the business will run better as a result and why the potential costs are worth it. Then you’ll identify intermediate goals, such as doing preliminary research this week, engaging the yard manager to help choose the software the next week, making the decision, getting purchase approvals, scheduling team training and putting the plan in motion.

What could go wrong here? Anything, everything or nothing at all. The key is that you bring focus to doing this one step at a time. Don’t try to do it all at once.

When you get together with your yard manager, you may get an enthusiastic response and a recommendation that leads you to a logical decision much sooner than expected. Or you may find an unwillingness to give your idea more than a nod until the slow season during the winter.

In the first case, the project suddenly looks much easier. With the manager leading the way, you may even be able to shift your focus elsewhere. In the second case, you may realize that your timing was bad, and you’ll work on other projects until January. Or you’ll realize that this is the 10th time your manager has rejected change and that it’s time for that performance conversation you’ve been putting off.

Either outcome is positive, although it may not look that way at first. That’s because you are actively leading in your workplace and, underlying that, adopting the discipline of taking shorter steps, testing ideas, and failing or succeeding, then modifying the plan if necessary and moving forward.

Recently, I wrote a case study about a large non-marine retailer introducing this kind of thinking on a broad scale in its technology and e-commerce development. Over three years, the business has transformed by pushing decision-making down the chain of command to the front lines, allowing for fast reaction to a changing marketplace.

One of the lessons was that this kind of change is not for everyone. Some people want to be told what to do, rather than make decisions and take responsibility for them. With your encouragement, some of those people will step up, but some will soon find other jobs.

If you’re in a business that is changing, how important is this? Most leaders will say, “Yes, I want my team members to think for themselves.” But are you ready to be challenged? Are you willing to start each meeting with an open mind, eager to learn from what you’re hearing, even if inconvenient truths are uncovered?

The answers come back to the agreement between you and your team, and your commitment to taking things step-by-step when you want that workflow software installed for the yard. Sometimes your team will be more than ready to take the idea and run with it. Other times you’ll have to pause and make a hard decision or two about moving staff around or replacing people who no longer fit their job. Either way, after this one project, you’ll end up with a team that’s better suited to making all the other changes needed at the yard — and a leadership style that’s better suited, too.

In meetings I’ve attended with an experienced salesman (let’s call him Jim), I’ve watched the process of establishing agreement. First, Jim identifies that the goal of every meeting is not necessarily to close the sale. Both in preparing for the meeting with me and then in sitting down with his potential customer, he will often make the statement: “My objective today is … ”

Jim’s intention is to be transparent about his goals, test the waters, see what the client already understands about the proposition, then backtrack or move ahead as the response dictates.

Agreement is looked for throughout the process. Finding it is a first step. After that, with each next step, you’re more likely to find agreement when you get to the last step, too. 

This article originally appeared in the December 2019 issue.

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