The Right Thing to Change

Talent Management

January 11, 2011

by Marshall Goldsmith

I spend serious time with people helping them decide what they need to change.

The first thing we do is review what they’re doing right. From an organizational perspective, that’s valuable because it eliminates certain challenges that don’t need to be addressed. Assuming I have gotten an individual to commit to changing for the better and changing something, I often have a hard time convincing successful people that not everything needs improving.

Successful people have a glaring tendency to over commit. If you outline seven flaws, they’ll want to tackle all of them. But giving people unlimited choices only confuses them. Faced with too many options, they go back and forth trying to maximize their choice. This can turn into paralysis; in their never-ending quest to find the best option, they end up deciding nothing. Worse, they may cycle back around to the same old idea that led to problems in the first place.

It’s no different when an organization is given a directive to innovate. Leaders see their favored market position weakening as competitors develop new products. They realize that favored status has led to complacency, and that complacency has infected the organization until everyone is operating within a successful box that is slowly shrinking around them. But they aren’t sure how to get out. After all, what they did to get in the box worked so well before.

It’s the same with successful people. Successful people hate being wrong even more than they like being right.

So I turn their attention to the one vital flaw that needs fixing. Rather, we identify the one thing that will effect the most substantive change. In many cases, that one thing might seem obvious. In the case of the competitor closing the gap by innovating in product or service, the obvious thing is to come up with the next great thing the customer wants — or to solve a problem the customer has in a new, cheaper or some other appealing way. But what is that problem? More importantly, would we know it if we saw it?

Often, people I work with will ignore that in-your-face problem and instead tackle any and every other problem around them instead. I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s denial. Although, if one is committed to change, denial shouldn’t be an issue. Maybe it’s our natural urge to take the path of least resistance, to start with the easy fix first. Maybe it’s just contrariness.

Whatever the reason, if innovation is the goal, the talent leader must get his or her stakeholders to see that improving the organization’s situation requires focus. The other issues are moot.

However, I can see why people have problems choosing what needs fixing. In golf, for example, 70 percent of all shots take place within 100 yards of the pin. It’s called the short game, and it involves pitching, chipping, hitting out of sand traps and putting. If you want to lower your score, focus on your short game, which represents 70 percent of your score.

Yet, if you go to the golf course, you’ll see most people attempting great feats of athleticism by trying to hit their oversized drivers as far as they can. It’s nonsensical. If golfers really wanted to stack the deck in their favor, they’d spend three hours on their short game for every hour spent trying to hit the ball a mile. If you improve your short game, you will shoot lower scores and beat the competition. The numbers don’t lie.

But getting people to fix their flaws in golf — a highly pleasurably game totally within our control — isn’t nearly as difficult as getting people to change at work. In the workplace, the stakes are higher, but the results are not completely under your control.

Therefore, when people commit to getting better, when they commit to change — being open to it and executing on it when opportunities arise — they are doing something extremely difficult, yet heroic. I applaud my clients when they begin the process of fixing their flaws and identifying that one key problem that’s throwing a wrench into the organizational works.

With the right follow-through, beginning a process, wherever it leads, helps to make success a foregone conclusion.