My wife, Penny, and I enjoy the outdoors. We love hiking through the woods and enjoying the scenery. While in Florida, we sailed quite a bit too. After moving to North Carolina, we were introduced to Jet Skis. Personally, I like Jet Skis better than a boat. Having ridden a motorcycle for many years, the similarity to a bike on the water is unmistakable. It was riding a jet ski which gave me some great insight into leading change.

We were happily surprised then when we were invited to join a couple of friends on the water one Saturday afternoon. They had a couple of Jet Skis and I was looking forward to spending some time cruising the lake on one of them.

Fun on the jet ski

When we arrived, we put the Jet Skis in the water and then set out for some fun! Penny and I were on one Jet Ski, and our friends were on the other. I was “driving” while Penny rode passenger behind me. After about 30 minutes or so, Penny tapped me on the shoulder and said she had noticed that our friends had swapped positions. She was driving while he rode behind her. Penny suggested that we do the same.

I brought the Jet Ski to a stop and slid into the water and climbed back up to settle in behind Penny as she drove. As she started across the water, I took the time to enjoy the scenery around us. As we skimmed across the lake at full throttle, suddenly, Penny turned hard to the right. I gripped her tightly when she suddenly turned hard left. Then hard right again. With each change of direction, my grip became a little less solid on her waist and I slid a little farther off the seat. It occurred to me that she was attempting to do figure 8’s at full throttle with me on the back! I leaned forward and said “Penny! You can’t change……”

Unexpected change

The next thing I knew, I was skipping off the surface of the lake like one of those flat rocks we used to throw across the water at summer camp! Arms and legs flailing, I skipped about 4 times and came to rest about ½ mile away. That’s what it seemed like anyway. She threw me off the back! After grabbing my glasses, which were slowly sinking into the dark waters of the lake, I swam back to the Jet Ski. Penny was laughing too hard at this point to drive over and pick me up.

As I look back over that situation, it occurs to me that it contains some lessons about leading change. Here are a few of the observations I have made regarding that day relating to leading change.

1. Create a culture of change

Train those you lead to expect, and welcome, change. When I climbed on the back of that Jet Ski, I expected Penny to change direction at some point. Not only did I expect change, but I also recognized the necessity for it. If she had not changed direction, we would have just ridden onto the shore at some point. And what fun is a Jet Ski on dirt? Change is inevitable for growth. Grind that thought into your company culture. Change is inevitable. Your organization should expect, and recognize the need for, change.

2. Make big changes slowly, if possible

Had Penny made a large, sweeping turn, it’s doubtful that I would have even noticed that she had changed direction at all. Certainly, not for some time. That’s the effect that you usually want change to have on those impacted by it. They shouldn’t be suddenly faced with a new direction. Change is hard for most people to process anyway. Sudden change can put people off-balance. When change is made to quickly, people are more likely to resist it, and may not be able to adapt fast enough. When implementing change, set a pace. Too slow and you risk losing momentum. Too quick and you risk losing buy-in.

Unless the situation is an emergency and requires a change to be made quickly, slow down and make sure that you get buy-in along the way. If possible, consider making a series of small changes that add up to the big change you are seeking. For example, when we changed our order entry software at a company I once worked for, we phased in the implementation one piece at a time.

Over the course of 6 months, the software was fully implemented and the change was more readily accepted by the staff because they were not surprised by sudden changes.

3. Don’t make too many changes at the same time

The reason I was thrown from the Jet Ski is that I didn’t have time to adjust between turns. After turning hard right, my backside was sitting quite a bit to the left of the centre of the seat and my right hand was losing its grip on Penny. During the turn to the left, I tried to adjust my position, but before I could make the adjustment, we were turning right again! My hand was now completely free of Penny and my keister had slipped a little farther to the left. By the time we made the 3rd turn, my right hand was flailing wildly in the air trying desperately to grab hold of something and the rest of me had run out of seat on which to sit.

Change is difficult at best for most people. Making several changes at the same time can be devastating to your workforce, your customers, and your company. For example, at one of the churches I worked for, we replaced one of the major leaders on staff. At the same time, we made changes in the positions of 3 additional staff members, changed some methods of operation in order to attract younger people to the church, switched coffee services, and redesigned the setup on the stage. In addition, we made several smaller changes that no one would have even noticed if there were not so many other changes going on around them. The result was that people became suspicious, questioned whether leadership even knew what they were doing and our attendance ultimately suffered.

Whether making changes in your operation, organization, or the direction of your Jet Ski, keep these observations in mind. Change is inevitable, but leading change is made is up to you.

Image Source:  Depositphotos

Tom is an author, speaker, and coach. His specialty is leadership development in churches and helping churches identify obstacles to growth.