How to Create Change When Change is Hard - An Accounting Allegory

Meet John, a hard-working new partner at a mid-sized accounting firm on the west coast. We join John as he sits down for his first annual review as a partner. His managing partner, Gus, makes the feedback clear, “John, the bottom line is you have to delegate more so you can spend that time on business development and hit your new targets. We’re all counting on you.”

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As John hears this, his stomach tightens – he didn’t get into accounting to do cold calling or go to awkward networking events. He walks out of Gus’ office with his insides in knots and just as he turns a corner, Debbie from accounts payable stops him. “John, don’t forget the new time entry system goes live in two months. Here’s a five-page handout of how it all works.” She hands him the document and he mumbles thanks then continues to shuffle in a daze towards his office.

Why are some work problems so easy to fix and some so tricky?

When we check back in with John two months later he’s totally up to speed on the new time entry system. That was easy - that five-page document Debbie gave him was super helpful and laid out all the steps he needed to do it right after only a few minutes of practice.

Business development and delegation was another story. Mired in unpleasant memories of forced networking conversations and past sales efforts gone wrong, John had managed to string together a continuous stream of excuses for not get out of the office. As for the delegation piece, John hadn’t told Gus that he has serious doubts about Sam and Sheila, his two senior managers. “They’re good people,” he thought to himself as he sips coffee at his desk, “they just can’t handle my clients like I do. Sam is always missing important details and Sheila is great with some of my clients, but she can be so abrasive with others.” He sighs. “They’re just not ready to do this without me there.”

Pounding in a nail? A hammer works better than a screwdriver.

For John to reach all his goals, he needs to understand that there are two types of changes. Harvard leadership lecturer Ronald Heifetz categorizes them as follows:

  1. Technical Change – For technical changes, the skills we need to perform our desired behaviors are well known. These are easier. The solution to the problem is well practiced and proven, so we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Usually just giving a person more knowledge is enough to help them create a technical change. Debbie’s five-page handout on the new time entry system was all John needed to get up to speed on the system – this was a technical change.

  2. Adaptive Change – These are quite a bit harder. Adaptive changes require new skills, but they also require a change in mindset. The solution itself may not be clear and can require learning to clearly define. Once the solution is clear, the work to create the desired change often needs to be done by multiple stakeholders, not just one person. Often experimentation is needed to navigate the course to success – instead of having a well-worn path to success. Business development and delegation skills are adaptive changes for John.

One of the biggest mistake leaders can make is when they try to create an adaptive change as if it were a technical change.

So, what if John treated business development and delegation as adaptive changes?

After a frustrating month, John burst in his HR director Jose’s office and started to vent. “John,” Jose said, “I understand your situation and it’s actually quite common – many of other partners went through the same thing at first.” Jose told John he was facing some big adaptive changes and together they crafted these questions:

- What does the solution look like – in other words, what is John’s vision of success for each topic?

- What other stakeholders need to be involved to make these changes successful (and sustainable)?

- What mindsets (or perspectives) does John typically have to around business development and delegation? How are they supporting him, or holding him back?

- What is a quick experiment can John try to help him navigate the best course forward?

Armed with these questions, and more importantly the knowledge that he needed to treat this as an adaptive challenge – John went to work. He got two successful partners at his firm to have periodic check ins with him, so he could have a sounding board. He also started jotting down whatever thoughts he was having around business development. “Wow,” he said after reading it, “I never realized all the negative thoughts I’ve been having about this – no wonder I never left the office!” He still made a lot of mistakes and it felt awkward at first, but as the weeks went on his persistence paid off.

At the partner retreat three months after his performance review, Gus addressed the group, “I want to highlight the efforts of our newest partner John. We’ve all known him as technically sharp and a hard worker, but over the last few months he really has started to shine as a valuable leader in our firm. Let’s give him a big round of applause.” John felt a blush come over him as all the partners gave him approving looks. His growing sense of confidence and hope made him feel like the future was going to be very bright indeed. Unique take on Sheila?