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Christian Nimsky's Weblog

Implementing a New Strategy Is Not a Straight Line Proposition

Christian Nimsky

In this post I continue to explore why implementing new strategies is hard, but doesn’t have to be. Today I want to offer an alternative example of “resistance to change,” how it manifests and what we can do about it.

When people talk about resistance to change, it’s easy to take this to mean one or more individuals actively or passively resisting a change.  While this does happen I believe that some significant-but-hard-to-measure costs come from two common forces in an organization that can discourage learning and really slow things down. Both originate with unrealistic expectations:

  • Architects of the change (management and “change agents”) often feel responsibility for implementing the change, and come up with plans and messaging to do so.
  • Stakeholders of the change (customers, investors, the general employee population by extension external media) tend to expect a simple plan that moves the organization from A to B while providing a clear benefit to them and an understandable story.

These perspectives are natural, but both tend to breed an intolerance for unexpected developments and information that is disruptive to the current narrative. As people act on these perspectives (leaders trying to stick to the plan, stakeholders expecting the plan to be executed without deviation) the organization tends to resist learning, and therefore change.

While known problems with known solutions can be solved with a straightforward prescription, if you are pursuing a new strategy you may know what the problem is, but not necessarily the exact form of the solution nor how to best operationalize it. In these situations you need adaptability more than you need simplicity and flawless execution against plan.

So how can we start to foster adaptability? It doesn’t always require hiring new “adaptable” people…just different mindsets and behaviors.

  • Architects of the change should point to a direction set in the new strategy, but not try to stipulate how to get there.  They should create appropriate forums for experimentation, discussion and set the right expectations (via messaging, budgeting, etc.) while providing some clear goals and guidelines.
  • Stakeholders of the change should not expect a “magic pill” solution and be prepared to lead front-lines experiments that can turn a new strategy into an operable reality. This means engaging in a two-way conversation, defining solutions, trying things out even if they can fail, measuring results and owning both the results as well as the communication back to the larger organization.  When a viable path forward emerges, this also means working hard to make it successful and serving as evangelists.

Sometimes a non-linear, iterative method gets you to the right destination faster and cheaper than a linear method. It depends on how you apply it and the culture you build. I’ve seen this approach work well a few times.  Have you tried it in your organization? If so, how did it pan out?

Next up: Some hats that people wear during a major transformation, and what they may experience along the way.