Leading a transformation is a lot like making a sales pitch. We are asking our colleagues to invest their mental cash with the promise of a better future just around the corner.
One would assume that both begin with a rational explanation of the challenge and solution.
But transformation success — like a successful sales pitch — doesn’t begin with a business case. It begins by looking inward and intentionally thinking about trust. This means asking yourself, “Does my team trust me? Do my peers trust me? And do I trust them?”
In this regard, don’t mistake buy-in for trust. This is a difficult, painful lesson we have all made. In my case, I learned this lesson many lifetimes ago when I sold things for a living. Too many times I came out of sales meetings with unearned confidence that the deal was imminent, only to have the sale slowly unravel. Through observation and candid mentorship, I can distill the lesson into a few words:
Trust earns the right to make the sale.
No one buys a solution because of its intrinsic value. They buy because they believe their problem will be solved and their world will be a better place. The commonality here is clear: belief in something that has not yet come to pass is a prerequisite for a successful sale. When we start a transformation effort, intentionally thinking about trust can increase your odds of success and help you identify weaknesses you didn’t even know existed.
Let’s look more closely at why trust matters to transformation success.
Why Trust Matters to Transformation Success
Thinking about trusted relationships as a model for enterprise transformation has some distinct advantages. First, high-trust relationships can bypass logic and go right to our emotional cores. For example, human beings are not moved to action by a 10% improvement in efficiency, even if we rationally understand it has many benefits. Significant decisions we make in our lives — where to work, who to date, where to raise a family — resonate with us first on an emotional level, and then we rationalize after the fact.
Second, messages from highly-trusted sources automatically carry more weight. Each of us develops a kind of mental firewall to filter, sort, protect, and adapt to the many stimuli that demand our attention. Simply put, how much a speaker is trusted is the most important criteria we have for evaluating a message. We can only “make the sale” when the other person trusts us enough to believe that we will do what we say we will do. While our mental firewall can be easily bypassed by new attackers, it learns with a speed that makes Artificial Intelligence researchers drool. As the saying goes, “Fool me once then shame on you; fool me twice then shame on me.”
Third, trust is always a relationship between two — and only two —parties. There are many weaknesses in human psychology that make it appear otherwise, but in my opinion these just go to show how hardwired our species is to trust. One such weakness manifests as brand loyalty.
A company with a strong brand has created a level of meta-existence within our collective conscience by doing things in such a way that we start to attribute human qualities like honesty and reliability, not to the people in the company, but to the company itself. Even when we know this is silly, we do it anyway because it’s useful.
For example, I personally trust Apple to protect my privacy. In my mind Apple is an angelic entity that looks a lot like a silver apple with a bite taken out of it floating in an all white background. I have rationalized my trust in Apple because I don’t have to think about what kind of cell phone to buy.
The one-to-one nature of trust allows savvy change leaders the opportunity to establish a brand for the transformation that invites the rest of the organization to establish their own positive relationship with the change.
Breaking Trust Jeopardizes Transformation Success
If trust is a useful model for organizational transformation, then there is one terrifying implication to consider:
Lose trust even once early on and you’re done for.
Behaving transparently, communicating honestly, and showing care for people is good business generally. But these attributes are particularly important in the early phases of transformation because they keep the mental firewalls open. Tiny slip-ups early on in the change process will completely discredit the initiative. Forget to invite the head of QA to your kickoff meeting? Must be those sneaky devs trying to make more work for my team again! Have an important event that is scheduled for management’s time zone and not the developers? It’s obvious that this Agile thing is just another tool for micromanagement!
The incredible scrutiny a transformation leader faces sets a very high bar for performance. Even the most well regarded, self-aware leader can accidentally do serious damage with even the smallest misstep. Is it any wonder that so many passionate executives struggle when it comes to making systemic changes to their organization?
Re-establishing Trust Can Fix a Stalled Transformation
In my experience with teams and organizations — especially within the context of any kind of improvement initiative or transformation effort — the simple principle of starting with trust is rarely applied, and this leads to transformation stall out.
If your Agile transformation is stalling, ask yourself, “Have we lost trust?” Then, ask someone you trust, or even someone who you are certain doesn’t trust you, the following questions: What is their level of trust? Why is that? And, what could possibly make them trust again? Re-establishing trust is a slow and painful process. However, when you bring trust front and center and start thinking about bringing Agile to an enterprise like it’s earning the right to make a sale, it creates a much more human-oriented, and successful, transformation.
One final consideration — there’s another adage popular in sales circles that says, “You have to spend money to make money.” In this regard, trust is humanity’s universal currency. When we are transparent with someone, we spend a little bit of our own trust on that person. When we communicate honestly, they can sense we worked a little harder because they know it is easier to lie in the short term. Give some trust, get some trust, get the sale.
You got this — I trust you.