Given the perceptions of change, increasing turbulence, and general disruptions (both in terms of tech and geopolitically) around us — this is an update to an earlier February 2017 MIT Sloan Management review article that I wrote considering “Three Meaningful Strategies for Managing Rapid Change” which seemed to have held-up in the years since.
Strategic Changes in the Face of Turbulence
The last two decades have shown that global, social, and marketplace shifts triggered by advances in technology and digital data — are rapidly transforming the nature of work and how existing organizations in both the private and public sector can best adapt to global change.
This explains the popularity of startups, which unlike existing organizations, lack legacy processes or technologies. Startup founders can reimagine a new way of doing business without the burden of how things “used to work” in their organization. Yet even startups today will accumulate similar legacy burdens. In the next three to four years how they previously worked when they started will no longer fit with the latest disruptive technology landscape, changing marketplace, and public demand.
So how can both established and relatively new organizations find new ways to be nimble and adaptive? How can organizations avoid the trap of becoming saddled with legacy processes, legacy technologies, or legacy ways of thinking?
Three Adaptations to Avoid
There are three quick — yet ultimately superficial — adaptations that organizations confronting rapid change often find tempting, but should avoid. These apply to organizational change in general, and more specifically to organizations attempting digital transformations.
- Avoid creating a transformation office unconnected to the rest of the organization: Transformation is everyone’s responsibility. Creating a disconnected office that does not include staff drawn or rotated in from the rest of the organization risks creating a culture of “cool kids” isolated from the rest of the workforce. This also risks dismissing those individuals already doing valuable transformation work elsewhere in the organization.
- Avoid digitizing processes without rethinking the organization’s business model: Focusing solely on IT misses the primary point that a rapidly changing world requires new business models. Just digitizing existing manual processes overlooks massive opportunities to improve how the organization works — and meaningful improvement must include transforming how the organization operates.
- Avoid just hiring a lone “chief officer”: This pins the entire hopes of the organization on one individual, when in fact helping the organization adapt to the shifting future of work is everyone’s responsibility. Expertise only comes from experiments, and thus all C-suite leaders must recognize the need to deliver results that matter by using existing business models while also experimenting with new and better ones in parallel.
Why Adapting to a Changing World Is Hard
Organizations (and most people) aren’t prone to change when things are going well. When an organization is doing well, the few prescient voices scanning the future and urging the organization to change its business model are ignored, marginalized, or worse.
When the external environment in which an organization operates changes, and the existing business processes no longer work, there usually remains a lot of denial that the world has changed. Often leaders and managers will revert to the refrain of “if we just get back to our principles of X years ago, then the organization will be fine.” Organizations that deny the world has changed will push to work harder at the old business model, or perhaps make an incremental improvement, attempting to get back to the old days that were so successful. It’s only when things get truly bad that an organization might finally embrace those voices that express the urgent need to do something completely different in the new environment. This is akin to waiting until an airplane has unexpectedly descended from a cruising altitude of 38,000 feet to less than 2,000 feet with the hopes of pulling the plane, with all its weight and inertia, back up before it hits the ground.
Three Meaningful Strategies to Deliver Results
In such “truly bad” scenarios, some organizations might risk doing one of the aforementioned quick yet ultimately superficial adaptations. It’s important to note that any one of those strategies isn’t entirely bad if there are more meaningful actions accompanying it. Leaders need to recognize that a quick adaptation rarely, if ever, helps an existing organization through the hard work of adapting to a changing world.
Here are three more meaningful strategies:
- Reward delivering results differently and better: Instead of striving to change organizational cultures (plural) head-on, an organization’s C-suite should visibly give permission — and reward — to those parts of the existing organization that deliver results differently and better. This will incentivize the more change-averse parts of your organization to expand their search space and provide top-cover to those prescient voices who can see future trends and successfully translate them into implementation and delivery of positive outcomes.
- Adapt the practiced values and goals of an organization to the changing world instead of attempting to change mission statements: Organizations that remain nimble and adaptive do so by explicitly recognizing that outcomes matter, and what an organization aims for and values on a regular basis in practice is much more important than any mission statement. What individuals in an organization perceive as intrinsically valued and rewarded will motivate them to adapt in ways that are long lasting. This then translates delivering results differently and better and ultimately transforms organizational cultures.
- Champion everyone across the organization to be positive change agents: Specifically, change agents are leaders who “illuminate the way” and manage the friction of stepping outside the status quo. Meaningful change happens across an organization when everyone realizes that anyone in an organization can be a change agent. There is no need to be a designated manager or supervisor. There is no need to receive formal authority to do so. By individually making improvements in the context of our own roles, this work will reverberate across an existing organization and collectively will adapt better to our changing world.
Ultimately if we focus more on the *meaningful* changes and do our best to avoid the tempting surface-level only changes, we can be strategic in what changes we lead, champion, and pioneer even with the turbulence happening around us in 2023 and beyond.
Onwards and upwards together!