If Something Goes Wrong, Fire the Leader?…Maybe Not


Firing the leader seems to be a common solution when something in an organization fails. Our human tendency is to hunt for someone to blame. Yet ironically most organizational failures, while there can be a significant leadership contribution, are not the result of one person’s incompetence, but are usually due to system issues. However, for many boards and organizations, it is just easier to fire someone. While that is the norm, is it right?

The implementation of the national healthcare exchange associated with the Affordable Care Act (Obama Care) recently went “live”. Kathleen Sebelius, former Secretary for the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) was on many legislators’ radar to fire as a solution to the problem. Eventually she resigned.

For context, this exchange and full implementation of it has the potential to impact United States citizens, over 313 million people. The magnitude and impact of such a transformation puts any leader’s competence and implementation skills to the test. Is the solution to fire the leader or learn from the mistakes?

This is but one of thousands of examples that occur in businesses. The reality is that sometimes firing the leader creates more vulnerability to the organization. It creates fear and reduces productivity and focus throughout the organization that can be incredibly damaging over time. The historical knowledge leaves with the leader and the organization’s functionality can be at risk, at least for a period of time.

There are risks and benefits inherent to the executive role; however there are ways to limit risk, particularly with large system transformation.

Here are 17 action items that will help to minimize the risk with your transformations.

1. Clearly articulate the transformation in vivid detail to enable others to see what the future will look like after the transformation is implemented.

2. Spend the time to carefully plan out the transformation.

3. Involve the best and brightest of minds as part of your planning team to help develop and execute the implementation plan.

4. Engage champions at all levels in the organization who see the vision of the new transformed world and involve them throughout the planning and implementation processes.

5. Before you implement strive to reach the tipping point with those advocating the transformation. The tipping point is the critical mass needed to help tip the entire stakeholder population in the direction desired.

6. Determine where your stakeholders are within a bell curve related to the transformation and their ability to embrace it.

a. Innovators, early adopters, and early majority adopters comprise about 50% of your impacted stakeholders. Late majority and laggards comprise the other 50% of the population.

b. If the latter 50% isn’t shifted favorably to the left before you implement, a successful implementation is more at risk. These people will do everything possible to resist the transformation.

c. Within your implementation plan, include the strategies to move the stakeholders to a favorable adoption state.

7. Identify risks and barriers with the transformation and develop a solution to minimize each.

8. Develop assumptions about the impact of the implementation– think through how big the transformation is. How many people will be impacted? How will their lives change? How long will they be impacted? When or will they experience benefits with the transformation, etc.? Include strategies to minimize the impact in your implementation plan.

9. Listen to input before you “go-live”, even if it is not what you want to hear. Often this feedback helps you plan better, which leads to a more favorable implementation process.

10. Develop a communication plan where each stakeholder is identified with key strategies and tactics for each audience.

11. Communicate to stakeholders about the transformation constantly from the inception of the transformation vision through post implementation.

a. Tell the truth in all communication including the benefits as well as the bumps expected in the implementation road. This will help manage expectations.

b. When you communicate after implementation, include favorable and unfavorable results, learnings and course corrections to increase trust and confidence in the process and you, as the leader.

12. Determine if the “go-live” should be big bang – all at once, or incremental, where you trial the implementation with smaller audiences. The latter method is actually preferable to test processes before impacting the masses, but it isn’t always possible to do.

13. Don’t “go-live” until you have confidence that the implementation will succeed.

14. Celebrate the successes of implementation if it went well and if not, celebrate after course corrections.

15. Measure and communicate the results of the implementation over time. This manages the process and provides the truth related to the transformation to stakeholders.

16. Remember that if communication doesn’t occur formally, it will informally. Generally in the absence of communication people make it up, which is usually worse to manage.

17. Hold a debrief session with your planning team within 2-3 weeks of go-live to learn what worked and what didn’t. This helps improve the current transformation processes and provides learnings for future transformations.

Implementation often becomes a “non-event” if planned well. Strive as a leader to learn from transformational changes that don’t go well and fight the urge to blame and fire as your first reaction.

Everyone benefits from a well-executed plan. How successful are you with implementation of a system transformation? If you need help with your organizational transformation, we can help.

This post first appeared on WallinEnterprises.com. Let’s connect: LinkedIn | Twitter