Preparing your Organization for Change

In times of uncertainty, leaders must hone organizations' capacity for making change

In case the past few years haven’t made it clear, the future is anything but predictable.  

You may not be able to predict the future, but you can anticipate, shape, and respond to changes as they occur. That’s the challenge of modern leaders: to hone the capacity for making change so that you’re ready for whatever happens. And since we can’t provide a list of guaranteed trends and predictions, we want to offer a list of tactical advice to help you, as a leader, prepare your organization for whatever lies ahead.

If no one can truly predict the future, that means it’s anyone’s game. Yes, it’s a time of constraints and challenges, but it’s also a time of renewal and re-emergence.

Preparing Your Organization for Change

If you haven’t already, just move forward. There are many, many leaders who publicly or privately hold out (unrealistic) hopes for a return to “normal”. Not only will more changes be required, but due to increased competition and resource scarcity, they’ll be far more complex than trading a physical office for a Zoom meeting. Looking back will only prevent you from soberly reflecting on what’s needed now.

Embrace change as an individual. Organizations can only be as dynamic as their leaders. Three key skills are critical for personal growth: 

  • Strategic foresight in uncertain conditions: the ability to anticipate and sense possible threats and opportunities while they are still weak signals so that the organization has time to respond. For many leaders, growth here means accepting that you might be wrong, and that your well-laid plans or long-held beliefs need to be revised in the face of changing evidence.
  • Decision-making in a world of tradeoffs: the ability to quickly and effectively make and communicate decisions that are a choice between two equally desirable or undesirable alternatives (i.e., the kind of choices this market is likely to give you). This involves recognizing and eliminating wasteful, avoidant behavior, and making decisions even with imperfect or incomplete information.
  • Emotional intelligence throughout change: the ability to manage one’s own emotions and understand the emotional needs of others during periods of change and transformation. This might involve learning to better balance transparency with retaining a positive mood or affect, or learning to reflect back where others are in their experience of change, instead of anchoring in your own experiences. 

Silence the collective noise. Every organization is rife with norms and practices that persist simply because “that’s how we do it here”: the meetings that simply repeat on calendars. The reports that are produced but never read. The rounds and rounds of consensus seeking that no one wants to participate in, but can’t say no to. These aren’t just productivity killers—they discourage teams from doing truly urgent and important work, including sensing change and mounting collective action. This simply can’t continue. The longer you wait to make change, the greater the burnout as teams fall further and further behind.

Get systematic about resource slack. Overworked teams have a reduced capacity to absorb, adapt, and thrive amidst change. If you haven’t already, it’s well past time to install better limits on people’s schedule and the level of intensity of their work, as well creating “circuit breakers” when those limits have been overrun for too long (e.g., mandatory time-off periods).  

Finally replace the five-year plan. No one knows what will happen this year, let alone five years from now, so stop making plans that will inevitably be abandoned. Instead, adopt an adaptive planning approach: quickly identify changes in the market, make small but varied bets, set investment milestones and gates, and rapidly scale the bets that do see traction. This requires a massive shift in the organization’s mindset, as leaders must re-frame failure as learning to support greater risk-taking. New processes—everything from feedback training to leadership roundtables and demo days—must also be created in order to integrate learning into teams’ regular behavior.

Get serious about customer-centricity. With so much change occurring, it’s never been more important to be closely tethered to your customers: you’ll be competing harder for their scarcer dollars while new privacy laws make it harder to collect data. Claiming you “put the customer first” isn’t enough—demand your business units establish autonomous, market-driven team structures, and rethink how the data you do collect can actually inform teams’ decisions, and not just be information to hoard or a liability to protect.

Define and distribute greater areas of freedom and control. Folks are painfully aware of all the change that’s done to them, rather than changes they’ve had a hand in shaping. If you’re struggling with team engagement, find opportunities for your teams to regain control at work and in their lives. This might be uncomfortable at first, as it means you might feel like you’re losing control, but will ultimately make the team stronger—and free you up to focus on the work only you can do.

Replace “purpose washing” with “protopianism.” To appeal to increasingly demanding customers and employees, it’s not enough to announce a vision statement or pay lip service to purpose. Instead, organizations must become what founding executive editor of WIRED magazine Kevin Kelly refers to as a “protopian.” These companies acknowledge the problems that come with trying to make anything better—and make incremental, yet continuous improvement to both their offerings and to their own organizations. Moreover, they make that change, with, and not to, their people and communities, creating change that benefits multiple stakeholders. As a leader, it’s your responsibility to work towards an ever better future, even if it means just making the first few steps.

Hone a repeatable process for scaling change. Finally, organizations today operate in a complex system, which means there’s no one solution that will fix everything. A reorg (or even layoffs) may be necessary, but let’s be honest: new reporting lines have rarely, if ever, changed how an organization actually operates. A bold purpose statement or EVP may set an inspiring tone, but without actions to back it up, it will simply increase skepticism. As the pandemic proved, organization can change—the challenge now is to build this as a repeatable process and growing capacity. Our approach has been honed by working with hundreds of teams from different industries, but whatever method you adopt, commit to making change an ingrained behavior, not a one-time event.

What’s Next

If no one can truly predict the future, that means it’s anyone’s game. Yes, it’s a time of constraints and challenges, but it’s also a time of renewal and re-emergence. The next titans of the world are emerging: are you positioning yourself, and your organization, to be among them?

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