When attempting to implement change in an organisation, it helps to have a team member who can clear the path ahead for others to follow. These Change Pathfinders can make all the difference to a project's success.
Imagine this: You’ve just been handed an amazing opportunity to manage a large transformation project. You have the full support of the CHRO, a focused and energised team, several full-time resources, a dedicated budget, and a clear mandate from the CEO.
It’s the perfect storm – in a good way – for driving organisational change. With all these factors lined up, no real obstacles should stand in your way, but there is still a nagging feeling in the pit of your stomach.
In my case, what was missing was an individual-level initiative, one that involved more than the usual project management templates. We needed someone to take the first steps into the new world.
I didn’t know it at the time, but there is an important position that the person (or persons) managing a project can fill, and it’s not one you’d usually find on a project organisation chart: enter the role of the Change Pathfinder.
How to adapt to a changing landscape
A Change Pathfinder blazes a trail ahead of the organisation and executive sponsors. This role provides leadership and momentum at the 'boots on the ground' level in a project, and is someone who behaves in ways that encourage others to follow.
A good Change Pathfinder will also execute key actions that clear the way toward the new world. I’ll elaborate on the skills and behaviors I discovered critical to success in this arena, but first, some context.
By taking the lumps and pitfalls that come with “going first,” the Change Pathfinder allows executive sponsors to learn from their experience and not suffer possible reputational hits.
As I alluded to earlier, the opportunity I was given was to lead a two-year transformation project for HR, which ultimately was called 'Powered by Talent'.
This project represented our response to a changing internal and external business environment. Internally, our company was adjusting to a recently completed merger, a relatively new CEO, and a newly expanded HR leadership team.
Externally, we (as was - and still is - the case for many energy sector organisations) were facing new challenges from disruptive technologies such as fracking and the emergence of the smart grid, not to mention an ever-evolving regulatory model. Our CEO challenged the entire company to become more effective and efficient, and to adapt to these pressures with innovation and operational excellence.
Our Powered by Talent response was multifaceted: we enhanced our talent acquisition process and tools, revitalised our executive development offerings, built an analytics team while up-skilling our HR population in critical thinking and implementing the Visier workforce analytics solution, and began to shift to a strategic business partner model of engagement with our clients.
This was a big change, which required a big role to drive the work. I ended up becoming our Change Pathfinder, although I wasn’t aware of it just then.
For other attempting to drive change, below are several key actions and behaviors I learned to execute in this capacity.
What a change pathfinder does
1. Assume the position of role model
Be first on the trail to demonstrate new things and behaviors. There’s often an unfair expectation that executive project sponsors will be able to devote significant time to learning and practicing the new way of doing things. In reality, many executives have no bandwidth.
Many also face an expectation of perfection. These two obstacles can be strong enough to stop execs from taking a risk and trying something new, which is where the Change Pathfinder steps in.
By taking the lumps and pitfalls that come with 'going first', the Change Pathfinder allows executive sponsors to learn from their experience and not suffer possible reputational hits.
2. Leverage others who have a natural passion for what you’re trying to drive
Ideally, these would be team members who aren’t afraid to color outside the lines and take risks or even evangelize about the new future. Channel this energy and allow these free spirits to break the ice where it’s harder for others to do so – you might be surprised at how effective they are at breaking down resistance and driving change further and faster.
One caveat: be sure to set up guardrails when working with these teammates so as to prevent them from wandering too far off course.
3. Get an outside perspective to use as a sounding board
It’s important to get a third party view on what’s going on inside your organisation, as this person will be able to talk you off ledges and give you fresh ideas on what’s really possible.
This is particularly important when facing the despair and self-doubt that can come with leading a change effort – at times it may feel as if the entire organisation is lined up against you. Having someone who can tell you 'it’s not as bad as it seems' or that an approach really does (or does not) work based on their experience is critical to success.
How to become a change pathfinder
Perhaps more important than applying any of these tactics is showing up as a Change Pathfinder. A requirement for success is to act differently than you’ve acted in the past. Doing so will show that you’re 'living' the change, and will help you and others break patterns of behavior, lighting the way forward.
In order to do this, you cannot take yourself too seriously. This seems paradoxical at first, given the criticality of getting the larger effort 'right', but going first means hitting walls and discovering hidden pitfalls.
In truth, it is often the project lead or team members who are in the right place at the right time, and can make the biggest difference by blazing a trail that others can follow.
Mistakes will be made, and if you react with anger or fear, others will be understandably hesitant to follow your footsteps. Diffuse these potentially embarrassing situations with humor.
Next, consider and adopt the Stockdale Paradox, where you maintain a realistic view of your circumstances, while remaining confident that you will come through fine in the end. Confidence and calm are contagious, and others will be reassured by your demeanor.
Finally, be comfortable in an uncomfortable space. Change brings ambiguity and questions that may not be immediately (if ever) answerable. This can be unnerving to some, but also serves the useful purpose of unfreezing those who are stuck in their ways.
Recognise when your stakeholders are thawing and be ready to time your rollouts to move them when they’re in this more fluid state.
Ultimately, the role of Change Pathfinder is often hidden and overlooked to the organisation's peril. Placing oneself in this role is not typically something that’s discussed in project management, but those who step out into the void will find the experience not only productive but rewarding as well.
Many hope that these shoes will be filled by senior leaders, but in truth, it is often the project lead or team members who are in the right place at the right time, and can make the biggest difference by blazing a trail that others can follow.
Those who are willing to light the path in this way will be all the richer for having done so. So go ahead, be the pathfinder.
Interested in learning more about change management? Read Why are some people more resilient when facing change?
About Tim Hickey
Tim leads a team responsible for HR strategy and strategic initiatives, HR technology, organization effectiveness, compliance, and analytics and reporting. With over 15 years of experience in companies from Fortune 100 to small business, he applies his background in OD and talent management to increase HR effectiveness. Most recently, he led the transformation of the HR function at Exelon, which focused on developing the team’s capabilities in talent acquisition, leadership development, and HR analytics, and introducing the HR Business Partner role.