Want Change? Try Lincoln’s Formula

Abraham Lincoln Business CultureMy work often takes me into organizations that need to make some fundamental change, but have been unsuccessful doing so in the past. I have thought a lot about how companies get themselves into this predicament and more importantly, how they get out of it.

It seems to start with a state of discontent and therefore, unproductivity, because some process, person or product doesn’t work as well as it used to and no one really knows how to address it. It’s usually not that the organization doesn’t foster an open culture and welcome opinions and ideas, (although that can be the problem), it’s more likely that the players don’t even realize they are in the middle of dysfunction. It’s likely things have been slowly declining for a while and people have become complacent, always waiting for someone else to address it, or hoping that it will get magically fixed. Then the discontent starts to bleed on to the customers and good people become disenchanted and leave. The leaders are left wondering what the heck just happened.

The first step in repair is to recognize there is a problem. If the organization is not getting the results, deadlines are not met, and good people are leaving, you have a problem. My guess is that multiple people could tell you what’s going on in two seconds, so as the leader, your job is to ask. Someone will tell you the truth.

Assuming you have diagnosed the right problem, test it out with your senior managers and ask if you have identified the issue. Make it a safe place for conversation and ask lots of questions – most importantly don’t be defensive or you’ll stop getting honest feedback.

The next phase is solving the issue including insuring that it won’t happen again. I like to use the approach outlined in a great article in the Wall Street Journal from February 15, 2014 entitled, “What Would Lincoln Do?” The article talks about how to solve problems and engage people to get behind one’s cause. Lincoln’s approach included the following:

  • Cite precedent – When has this approach been used successfully in the past?
  • Make your case – What do you want to do?
  • Humor helps – Don’t take yourself or the situation too seriously.
  • Principles first – Always adhere to your values and the company’s.
  • Be inclusive – No one ever solved a problem in a vacuum.

My guess is that if you take this approach to a solution, whether it’s a small issue or a larger systemic problem, it will eventually get solved. Remember that the key to lasting solutions is that it was everyone’s solution, not just yours. Everyone wants to be a part of a solution – and rarely admit they were part of the original problem.

So next time you know you have a situation where a significant change needs to happen in the organization, ask yourself, “what would Lincoln do?”