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Christian Nimsky's Weblog

Filtering by Category: Leadership

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.

Creating a new strategy is hard. Implementing it, even harder. Why?

Christian Nimsky

Trying something new is hard, whether you are an individual, a team or a large organization.  In my experience organizations can struggle to find the best path forward even if they “know” what they want to do. And often, doing that new “thing” well is critical to their continued relevance and survival. So, if the organization has the necessary motivation, why is doing something new hard?

There has been a lot of good research on “strategic misses,” either in the form of failing to act effectively to address market shifts (Kodak - even though they invented the digital camera! - as analyzed in many places but with Chunka Mui’s piece in Forbes a great place to start) or by letting a bias toward action guided through the lens of prior success scatter precious momentum (Donald Sull’s excellent piece in HBR from 1999 is still relevant).

Even if your new strategy is sound and unclouded by historical success or other bias, acting on the new strategy is still hard.  Why?

I have a hypothesis: I believe the reason why implementing new strategies is hard because organizations tend to evolve structures, rhythms, methods and cultures over time to optimally support a specific strategy, much as animals evolve to thrive in a specific environment.  And the more optimized they have become, the harder it is to change course. 

Big shifts generate turbulence in the organization.  A lot of people consider the confusion and turbulence surrounding a major shift in strategy to be normal. Maybe, but is it inevitable? There are some risks to accepting turbulence as a “new normal”: If the organization doesn’t change course smoothly, it can trip itself up and fail at both the old strategy and the new one.

I want to see if there’s a better way. This post - and the ones that will follow it - are my attempt to start a conversation about what you have experienced and what works (or not) when navigating big shifts in strategy.

So let’s start by talking not about strategy itself, but turbulence.  How do you know you are about to experience turbulence?

Often when people sense a gap between where things are and what the new strategy would require they try to start talking about it. If they perceive the gap to be a big one, what usually comes out in the early stages are semi-doubtful questions or statements like:

  • “We’re not set up to do that…"  (gaps in structure, systems, etc.)
  • “Can our people really change their ways?…" (skillset, ways of thinking and/or culture)
  • “I don’t know if we’re that kind of company…" (customer engagement pathways, brand)
  • “That new person they hired to lead initiative X has a real mountain to climb..." (possible lack of buy-in/support)

And then there’s the big question nobody likes to talk about in public: “If we’re moving to this new strategy, do our leaders have what it takes to get us there safely?” 

These signals are important because in transitions people tend to act differently.  They may make decisions a little more hesitantly, calling lots of meetings.  They might not implement new approaches or products swiftly. At the other extreme, some might make rash decisions and leap without looking. 

I’ve even seen some individuals “short” the new strategy like a stock, taking actions that enable them to profit from any setback in the new strategy.

Unmanaged, these behaviors can threaten the success of the organization regardless of the strategy itself.  

Open mic time: Do you find this topic relevant?  If so, what have you seen, and do you think there is a better way?  What would you advise a colleague leading a major new effort in their company to watch out for?

In future posts if there is interest, I’m planning on diving a little deeper into the behaviors, the different roles people can assume and what organizations contemplating a big change can do about it.

Image above courtesy of Gerard Van Der Leun via Flickr

Navigating Corporate Transformations As A Tenured Leader

Christian Nimsky

Over the last several years I've found myself in situations where I've come into an existing team with some sort of "transformational" mandate.  The mandate could be a full-on turn-the-business-around kind of thing or just a high growth scenario that requires the organization to adapt to seize new opportunities.  This post shares a few observations on challenges that existing or “tenured" leaders face in such situations, the definition of an “tenured leader" being one who is not new to the organization, even though they may have recently been promoted into a leadership role.

As a new exec the challenge with assessing leaders in a transformational situation is that most leaders are pretty good at mirroring what you are looking for and in the early months there isn't always the opportunity for a "true test" of their actions and ability.  Like many who inherit a team in a turnaround or other kind of "transformation" scenario, my initial impulse is rarely to scrap the entire team and start over so I typically take some time to work with people and assess what kind of changes would benefit the team the most.  Below are some changes I have repeatedly seen in a transformation scenario.

Exits: Over the course of the first few months it is relatively straightforward to identify and address anyone who is clearly not going to fit.  While not an easy task, it is relatively straightforward and induces a change dynamic that is sort of a known quantity in many organizations.

A New “Inner Circle”: Often a new exec identifies the need for one or more chief lieutenants that are well connected, have characteristics desirable in the new culture and can get things done across the organization.  This is especially true if the organization has a lot of upward/horizontal management obligations that take up the new executive’s time.  In the early days it is a relatively clear cut process for the new executive to make the case for their promotion, elevating those individuals into new levels of responsibility and influence.

New Faces: Hiring in new talent is also relatively straightforward.  Where gaps are exist (or have been created by necessary exits), hiring in really strong people is a way to set a new bar.  We've done that at CR to great effect.  As that bar gets raised, some of the existing leaders - including those recently promoted - experience changes that give them opportunities for growth at the same time.

During all of these changes tenured leaders can face one or more challenges:

  • They may experience survivor syndrome as other team members leave.
  • They are put into uncomfortable roles, especially as they are promoted.
  • They may be asked to assume a higher level responsibility than peers.
  • They are often given larger scopes of responsibility.
  • The formal and informal organizational landscape shifts as new people are brought in around them.
  • Oh yeah - they have a new boss too!

This can be an exciting time for tenured leaders. On the plus side they have the advantage of institutional knowledge and a network in the organization.  They also have new allies in the form of new teammates and can start to implement things they may not have had the opportunity to under prior management.  The new teammates also present a challenge in that they may reshape the power structure and they bring different knowledge and perspectives that alter the ongoing narrative.

So what should you do if you find yourself in this situation?

Realize you have a choice on how to approach things.  Organizational transformations represent both risk and opportunity.  Some people find growth in the turbulence and others fixate on managing personal risk and often end up stagnating.  The danger in fixating on risk is for most people is they end up spending too many calories justifying and defending their portfolio of responsibility, causing them to appear “non-strategic” or “resistant” or both.  If you truly don’t like the direction the new executive is taking things, voice that concern and be prepared to leave if you feel like you can’t sign up for the new approach.

Ask for help.  At CR we have some emerging leaders who are in the middle of many of these changes and are great at asking for help.  I find that people who ask for help tend to have more ongoing success than those who hunker down and try to just grind through the change while quietly holding on to the perspectives and approaches that have served them well historically (but perhaps not in the future).  This should include asking some of your new peers for help.

Take risks and let stuff break occasionally.  I've seen many leaders who - in the face of exits around the team and an influx of new (but uninitiated) peers - throw themselves into fixing or covering for all the little gaps and dysfunctions in the organization.  While this can temporarily “save the day" it can also create risk by downplaying areas that need improvement and by pushing you - the perfectly capable and newly anointed leader - into a mode where you are mired in the operational side of things.  Nothing is wrong with operational competence, but if it comes at the expense of your ability to contribute strategically you could find it limiting your growth in a transformational scenario.

Get outside of the building.  While important as a general rule of thumb, for tenured leaders getting outside the building is even more critical because their new teammates coming in have already been outside the building, and you don't want to be contributing solely from an "institutional knowledge" standpoint.  It is also wise to network in a transformational scenario because you might need those connections at some point.  First, there is always the possibility that the transformation doesn’t work and the company finds itself in a financially desperate situation where you need to look for a new gig.  If the transformation does work, in the future you may be asked to help recruit staff, to bring new ideas into the building or to even find new partnership opportunities.