Orange Barrels & Cautions for 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 some road construction. While we were sitting there, all yearning to be done driving and out of our vehicle, I began to think about road construction, specifically the orange barrels (fun fact the barrels there were orange and black, not orange and white). I constructionthought about the frustration I was experiencing due to the construction, what a pain it was for all drivers, wondering why they had to do it now, etc. But then it hit me, 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.”  I realized, as shook off my pathetic pity party mindset, was that the orange barrels and the construction were necessary. They were part of the progress for this community. So while for me at that moment, and the other drivers who live there and drive that stretch everyday, the “change” a.k.a. construction and the orange barrels were not fun to go through; all of us will appreciate the “progress” the construction will bring the roads and the community. I realized there is a powerful analogy between orange barrels and construction and leadership.

Whether you are a road construction foreman or a leader of an organization, keep these “orange barrel lessons” in mind:

  1. Project Origination – Before you break ground or begin the change, all leaders have to make sure they challenge themselves on where did the idea for this project come from? Who came up with the need for the project? Was there a need for change? Did the idea come from a professional conference you attended? Did the idea come from your own desires 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 on this 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 & vision for it.
  2. There Will Be No Band & Celebration – As a leader don’t be surprised that when you introduce or begin to undertake a change project, that people won’t love it. There will not be people (or very few) who will clap their hands and cheer when the orange barrels start lining the road. Don’t be discouraged and don’t be surprised. Anticipate this reaction. 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.
  3. Proximity to the Issue = Greater Understanding – To help with you with both orange barrel lessons #1 & #2, help yourself and your change project with remembering that people with the closest proximity to the issue will have the greatest understanding of the issue and reasons for the change project. Drivers who navigate the Queens Highway 420 outside of Hamilton every day understand best why the construction was needed and will appreciate the progress that is made by the project once its completed. Empower these individuals as leaders, ensure they help you shape the project, and serve the important role of building understanding from within others as to why the change project will lead to needed progress and a better future.
  4. Project Posters Have Real Power – At the start of any road construction project, highway posterthe Department of Transportation (DOT) will hold events and display project 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/understanding of what it will look like when the project is finished. While people might not love the news of the change project and won’t like their initial experiences with the changes as they are in progress, 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. 

  5. Take a Phased Approach – Think about a major road construction project, something that covers miles and miles of roadway. They don’t close down the entire highway and rip up everything at one time. For example, if the DOT is looking to expand and improve 50 miles of freeway, they might start with the first ten miles, or may start with 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 it, communicate that accomplishment and celebrate it. Promote the benefits/improvements that this first 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 (see orange barrel advice #4). And then keep going…there are more phases to work on.
  6. 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 better be involved. You have to know what is going on, hopefully based on your past experiences doing the leadershipwork that is being done – which builds your own credibility and the credibility of the change project. Roll your sleeves up, grab a shovel, be a partner, and make sure you support the people doing the work everyday, who are directly responsible for the changes and celebrate their work and progress. The road will never get built without them, and then won’t want to build it without you being present.
  7. Before & After – Once the project is “finished”, do not 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 you now are at. This will help heal some change wounds and it will bring back some of the “leadership capital” you will have spent on the project. It will also help to prepare them 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.
  8. Orange Barrels are Inevitable – Taking on a major change project can be daunting. People will attempt to talk you out of it, you might try to talk yourself out of it. The potential of the push back, the attention, hard work, the purposefulness it will take, the risks you will take, the frustrations and set backs you will experience, change is necessarythe real chance that it won’t work, etc. 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 loads/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 from the change – 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 construction foreman or a leader of an organization, don’t be surprised when people are unhappy, are frustrated with your change project. Don’t be surprised when itorange barrels takes a lot of work to complete the change project correctly.  But also don’t be surprised, if you do it correctly, that when you pick up all of the orange barrels, people will be happy with progress you made together. Remember “Everybody likes progress, no one likes change.”