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Read The Instructions

“When all else fails, read the instructions.”

That simple, seven-word warning ought to appear on the instruction manual for everything that comes unassembled.  It should appear in bold face, large font letters on every purchase from Ikea, every home theater system, every backyard play set, and every brightly-colored, multi-part plastic child’s toy packaged in an injection-molded, twist-tied, tape-enclosed box.

If you are like me, you may have looked at a seemingly harmless collection of parts and tossed aside the manual thinking you could put it together using common sense.  “I’m intelligent and capable,” you thought.  “Who really needs to bother with the time-consuming process of reading the instructions?  How hard can it be?”


That’s when we find ourselves, hours later, furiously picking through the rubble to find the discarded instructions.

It is part of our proud, achieving nature to try to do everything our way, and only when the prospects of failure become overwhelming do we begin to think about asking for help.  Even then, we do so not by recognizing our own shortcomings, but by asking for help with the failings of those who thwarted our success.  The product was designed poorly, the instructions were unintelligible, or the bystanders were making too much noise for us to concentrate on this ridiculous mess.

There aren’t many areas this applies better than managing change.  All too often I watch seasoned managers rush headlong into large change efforts with the idea that their own common sense will get them through.  Even those who have led change before think that the only help they need is with the execution of deliverables—that’s project jargon that translates to producing PowerPoints, emails and pdf’s.  Rarely do change execs look for help assessing the human risks or identifying actions for managing them.  That would be like admitting they couldn’t lead or their managerial skills were ineffective.

“Our organization doesn’t have much patience for change assessment,” stated a senior executive for a financial services organization going through a post-TARP operational restructuring.  “We’re a smart group focused on the business of implementation.  People around here only need help making sure the work gets done.”

That sounds strong, business-like and efficient, except for the fact that two months into the three-year project, they were over budget, facing stiff internal resistance to the proposed solution and negotiating with project sponsors who were “losing confidence.”  To make matters worse, the corporate communications group was so nervous about the change communications work product that they inserted themselves by requiring approvals before the change team could send any communication to the employee population.

Maybe the change leaders should have read the instructions. lists over 13,000 books about managing change.  I have only read a few dozen, but it’s enough to know the lessons learned are similar no matter the author and approach.  Save time, hassle and the pain of undoing the mess caused by applying common sense.  Instead, read the instructions.

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