Orange Barrels and Leadership

This summer, we took a family road trip to Toronto and Niagara Falls. During our 12-hour drive to and through Canada, we got stuck in a traffic jam just outside of Hamilton, Ontario, due to road construction. While we were sitting there, all yearning to be done driving and out of our vehicle, I began to think about construction, specifically the orange barrels (fun fact—the barrels in Canada were orange and black, not orange and white).

I thought about the frustration I was experiencing due to the construction, what a pain it was, and wondered why they had to do it now. But then it hit me that there is a real parallel lesson to leadership, specifically a quote that I believe all leaders must remember: “Everybody likes progress, no one likes change.”  

The orange barrels and the construction were necessary. They were part of progress for this community. So while the changes weren’t fun for me at that moment and for the other drivers who drive that stretch every day, all of us will appreciate the progress the construction will bring. I realized there is a powerful analogy between orange barrels and leadership. Whether you are a construction foreman or a leader of an organization, keep these orange barrel lessons in mind:

Project Origination

Before you break ground or begin the change, all leaders have to make sure they challenge themselves. Where did the idea for the project come from? Who came up with it? Was there a need for change? Did the idea come from a professional conference you attended? Did the idea come from your own desire as a leader to be part of a large undertaking, for a feather in your leadership cap? Or is it because of a need identified as an area for improvement? Or was the need expressed by your “drivers”—your people?  As a leader, you have to challenge yourself and your thinking, and be crystal clear as to why and where the need for change comes from. Don’t shirk from taking on a project, but just make sure there is a clear need and vision for it.

There Will Be No Band or Celebration

Don’t be surprised that when you introduce or begin to undertake a project, people won’t love it. Very few people, if any, will clap their hands and cheer when the orange barrels start lining the road. Don’t be discouraged, and don’t be surprised. While it’s not okay, it will happen. People want, need, and appreciate progress, but they will criticize, resist, and be unhappy with the changes that progress brings.

Proximity Equals Greater Understanding

To help you with the first two orange barrel lessons, remember that people with the closest proximity to the issue will have the greatest understanding of the reasons for the change. Drivers who navigate the Queens Highway 420 outside of Hamilton every day understand best why the construction was needed and will most appreciate the progress once its completed. Empower these individuals as leaders, ensure they help you shape the project and serve the important role of building understanding within others.

Project Posters Have Real Power 

At the start of any road construction project,  the Department of Transportation will hold events and display posters in the community and along the roadway where the construction is happening. They do this because they understand the power of vision, specifically a tangible picture of what it will look like when the project is finished. While people might not love the news of the project and won’t like their initial experiences with the changes, keeping the vision as tangible as possible will make the progress that people want more of the focus than the change they are experiencing. As a leader, you have a responsibility to help your people see the vision, to understand the vision, to believe in the vision—and then ensure they see and are reminded of the vision of the change project continuously.

Take a Phased Approach

Think about a major road construction project, something that covers miles and miles of highway. They don’t close down the entire highway and rip up everything at one time. They might start with the first ten miles, or an overpass bridge, or prepping small areas along the way. As a leader, you have to understand that you must do the same with your change project.  Figure out what phases you will take. Figure out where to start. Finish that phase before you take on the next one. And when you finish each phase, communicate that accomplishment and celebrate it. Promote the benefits and improvements each phase has brought to your organization and allow your people to enjoy it. Make sure to connect it to the larger vision of the entire change project. And then keep going—there are more phases to work on.

Be Present

As the leader, you are the foreman of the change project. You must be present. You must be part of the project. You don’t have to physically do all of the work and you can’t be everywhere all the time, but you had better be involved. You have to know what is going on, hopefully based on your past experiences doing the work that is being done—which builds your own credibility and the credibility of the project. Roll up your sleeves, grab a shovel, be a partner, and make sure you support the people doing the work every day and celebrate their work and progress. The road will never get built without them, and they won’t want to build it without you being present.

Before and After

Once the project is finished, don’t miss the opportunity to circle back and do a “before and after” process. Remind people of where you were prior to the change project starting, which most likely will have been a while ago. Celebrate the hard work done and enjoy the place/status/condition to which you have arrived. This will help heal some change wounds and bring back some of the leadership capital you will have spent on the project. It will also help to prepare people for the next project—which will have to come. It will also prepare them for when you have to go back and repair, and eventually even redo, the same stretch of that roadway.

Orange Barrels Are Inevitable

Taking on a major change project can be daunting. People will attempt to talk you out of it, or you might try to talk yourself out of it. The potential for pushback; the attention, hard work, the purposefulness it will take; the risks, frustrations, and setbacks you will experience; the real chance that it won’t work can all be reasons to avoid change. But good leaders understand that progress is both needed and inevitable, and therefore so is change. In fact, you are derelict in your leadership duty if you avoid this reality. Roads deteriorate, traffic patterns and needs change over time, new technologies and techniques are discovered—all of which make change necessary. As a leader, you have the blessing and the curse to know that the presence of orange barrels will ultimately create progress, which you know is needed, will make things better, and will help your people, your organization, and your mission.

As a leader, don’t be surprised when people are unhappy or frustrated with your change project. Don’t be surprised when it takes a lot of work to complete it correctly.  But also, if you do it correctly, don’t be surprised that when you pick up all of the orange barrels, people will be happy with the progress you made together. Remember that “everybody likes progress, no one likes change.”

Paul Hermes is the associate principal of curriculum and instruction at Appleton North High School in Appleton, WI. He was the 2016 Wisconsin Assistant Principal of the Year. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHermesEDU and visit his education and leadership blog, Analogies from an Administrator.

 

1 Comment

  • Brad Neuendorf says:

    Well done, really like the analogy and your points were spot on. Thanks for taking the time to write the article for the rest of us!

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