The Importance of Yellow Brick Roads

Posted on Posted in Change Management, Communication, Leadership, Project Management
By Erik Van Slyke, Managing Director, www.erikvanslyke.com

Change is a lot like going from Oz to Kansas.  

On one hand, it's as uncomplicated as closing your eyes, clicking the heels of your ruby slippers and willing yourself from one place to another.  Individuals and organizations have the ability to make change that simple—an uncomplicated choice, a straightforward decision, a path taken with no looking back.  And like Dorothy learns at the end of the story, we always have the potential to instantly go home.

On the other hand, most of us need to follow a Yellow Brick Road.  Yellow Brick Roads provide clear paths, somewhere to place our attention, and the constants during times of turmoil when monkeys are flying toward us in attack.  We may not always stay on the path, in fact it may not even be needed to get to our destination, but it is there to provide a unifying sense of direction and purpose.  Even if it is not exactly the way home, it prompts the action required for us to achieve our objective.

In any successful change campaign, change leaders must present a clear, straightforward step that employees can take to help them move toward the destination.  Even if more complex action is required at some point in the future, a well-defined first step or two provides welcome reassurance.

After landing in a strange land where nothing looked familiar, Dorothy was quickly comforted to know that the Yellow Brick Road would lead her to someone who could get her home.  She had no idea of the challenges that she would find on the road ahead, but the road itself provided the comfort needed to get moving.

Resistance to change, much like the flying monkeys, is always lurking somewhere in the shadows waiting to wreak havoc on your efforts.  Even when employees buy into your change vision, they quickly develop cynicism, or resistance, if they don’t know how you plan to achieve the vision.  By showing them the first few bricks, you start them down the path required to move forward.  More importantly, once you have them focused and moving, they start to define the subsequent steps and can help identify additional requirements needed to achieve the goal.

Those first few steps are critical to get employees engaged.

George, the director of a government agency’s maintenance and utilities function, was trying in earnest to improve the operational effectiveness of his organization knowing that many jobs were at risk to outside contractors.  The organization’s labor costs had increased, and the agency they served was less satisfied with the quality of work and the time it took to complete projects.

George and his deputies knew that they were going to have to change the managerial and employee culture from a “government mindset” to a “business mindset.”  So, they started peppering their daily conversations with this message.  They would say things like “We have to start thinking like business people,” or “What are you doing to become more efficient?”

The response of the organization was a universal, “Huh?!”  Employees understood the objective—and they wanted to save their jobs—but they had operated a certain way for so long that they didn’t know how to get from Point A to Point B.  George was communicating, “We want to go home,” but he wasn’t showing employees the Yellow Brick Road that would lead them there.

When he and his leadership team pointed out the first few bricks, however, his organization got fully engaged.  One brick was to start measuring aspects of their performance, such as the cost per job or the days to completion.  Another brick was to provide outside benchmarks of cost and quality.  And the final brick was to “give permission” for employees to work outside the guidelines of policies and procedures if they could show it would lead to higher quality and better service.

Once those steps were identified and taken, employees at all levels found their brains, hearts and courage and skipped happily down the Yellow Brick Road toward Oz.