Demonstrate vs. Mandate: Finding the Best Way to Lead Organizational Change

Organizational Change

Driving change within an organization is no easy feat, as I know from spending years consulting hands-on with various companies on expansion strategies, software adoption challenges, process optimization, governance, and more. Now I manage a team of customer solutions specialists who perform those same services for Workfront’s valuable customers.

Over the years, I’ve learned that successful organizational change requires a balanced approach and positive engagement from leadership. It requires leaders who demonstrate instead of simply mandate, exercising patient perseverance that allows those affected by the change to get authentically on board and become champions themselves.

In a recent presentation at Workfront’s user conference, we asked the attendees — which included a mix of aspiring leaders, vice presidents and directors, and C-level executives — to rank their organization’s ability to successfully adopt change. The results weren't optimal: fully half of the respondents gave their company just 2 out of 5 stars, with another third selecting 3 out of 5 stars. The number of companies earning 5 stars? Zero.

Since the majority of attendees came from companies with 1,000 or more employees, these stats aren’t terribly surprising. The larger your company is, the harder it is to pivot and change. But here’s the good news: 73% said that they prefer demonstrating over mandating change, and almost everyone (99%) said that combining the two approaches would be more effective than trying either one alone — a position I strongly agree with.

So what does that look like on the ground? Here’s how I describe the differences between the two approaches, followed by five ways to harness both in your change efforts.

What Does it Mean to Mandate Change?

In my presentation, I introduced the persona of Rosko P. Mandate, a drill sergeant who gives orders, expects action without question, and has zero tolerance for deviation. His mantra? “Do as I say, not as I do…and do it NOW.”

Obviously, no real-life leader will fit such a simplistic caricature. But plenty of leaders fall prey to one or more of Rosko P. Mandate’s problematic traits:

What Does it Mean to Demonstrate Change?

In contrast to the drill sergeant, I introduced Marco De’Monstrate, an executive chef who provides guidelines and focuses on overall quality and on-time delivery. His mantra? “I practice what I preach.”

Again, Marco is a fictional persona, but he exhibits qualities that effective change makers will do well to emulate:

Guiding Principles

In a recent article in Harvard Business Review, author Lisa Lai suggests that “motivation is less about employees doing great work and more about employees feeling great about their work.” This idea is reflected throughout Workfront CEO Alex Shootman’s book, Done Right, which outlines five essential ways to lead change effectively, using a combined mandate + demonstrate approach.

1. Lead with Purpose

Whether you’re an aspiring leader or a current VP or C-level executive, effective change management requires end-to-end stakeholder management around your ultimate purpose. Personally, I define “stakeholder” as more than just the customers, clients, and executives we often think of occupying this role. I include everyone who’s involved in the work in any form, from the requestor, to the person performing the work, to those signing off on it in the end. When all of these individuals are operating with the same purpose in mind, and they know they can offer regular feedback to help maintain the right course, you’ll be far more effective in driving your change implementation forward.

2. Plan with Simplicity

You may know where you want to go, but before you can take action, you need to know where you stand currently.

First, make sure you know your people. Get really familiar with your team’s skillsets and capabilities, your team’s maturity, the mix of personalities, and the corporate culture, because all of these will determine how far you can go, and how fast.

Secondly, keep the process simple. In my experience, an over-engineered process is more likely to drive adoption down, rather than up. If you’re designing a process just for the sake of having a process, or if your plan is too complicated or cumbersome, things aren’t going to go well.

I see customers who have a huge list of custom data fields that they want capture in custom forms. I’ll ask what the data is for, and they’ll say, “Well, we have to report on it.” I’ll then ask what decisions they make from those reports, and quite often, the answer isn’t clear. So we suggest scaling back in order to avoid overwhelming their team with a custom form that has 500 fields in it, which will then inundate all of the workers with a flood of noise every time they start new work requests.

Keep your workflows clear and concise, without getting too granular in the steps of work. For example, if the task is to “tie your shoes,” is that one step ? Or is it five steps? (Step one: make a bunny ear with one shoelace. Step two: …) Yes, be clear and detailed — but not too detailed.

3. Execute with Speed

The longer your change implementation drags on, the harder you’ll have to work to get total buy in. To execute with speed, start by understanding what adds value to your change implementation and what does not.  Focus on these value-adding activities first, always keeping an eye on key dependencies and resolving roadblocks as quickly as possible to prevent slowdowns or stand stills. Create a process to stop distractions and unplanned work from interrupting the team’s momentum.

4. Communicate with Influence

Make it your top priority to understand your stakeholders’ priorities. And remember: everyone who’s involved in the work counts as a stakeholder. When people genuinely believe that you care about what matters to them, they’re more likely to look to you as a trusted advisor. In change management — and in life in general — communicating effectively comes down to listening more, and speaking less. As Dale Carnegie, author of How to Win Friends and Influence People, famously said: you’ll make more friends in two months by being interested in other people than in two years of trying to get people interested in you. Or as Alex phrases it in his book: “To be interesting, be interested.”

5. Measure with Meaning

Metrics are unique to each organization. Identify a few key metrics that can drive impact and evaluate them on a regular cadence. Ask yourself: is this getting us the right information? If yes, what do we do with the info? If no, what is the right info that we need to begin capturing so we can begin to measure success? Never measure just to measure. Keep your metrics relevant, valuable, and tied to your overarching purpose.

Mandate + Demonstrate = True Leadership

“Your opening play as a leader, whatever your field of endeavor,” writes Alex, is to “make work matter. And if you’re the leader of the work, only you can give it meaning.” The same is true with any kind of organizational change. Don’t bark out orders or mandate change, expecting people to automatically fall in line. Instead, walk the talk and invite your team to participate, demonstrating five proven principles as you go: lead with purpose, plan with simplicity, execute with speed, communicate with influence, and measure with meaning.