Managing a Corporate Cultural Slide

How can you avoid the agony of putting your company through a massive restructuring? Simple: Learn how to make sure it never needs one.

For corporations around the world, radical change is the new normal. Even before an earthquake in the marketplace has finished reshaping one business, its vibrations have begun rippling through another one. Helping companies execute these organizational overhauls has become a sizeable — and, paradoxically, steady — cottage industry of its own. Indeed, some of us have staked our reputations and built our careers developing the ability to guide businesses through such upheavals and out of the shadow of a looming crisis. And so it’s only fair that we share one thing we’ve learned about radical change: It’s often unnecessary.

In our experience, too many senior leaders are shortsighted when it comes to change. They view it only in terms of a dramatic and monumental event, rather than the subtle journey that comes from recognizing understated environmental shifts, some of which first manifest themselves internally. Out of inertia, some managers maintain the status quo until these noticeable trends escalate into predicaments that can only be addressed by implementing radical change. It’s this perspective — or lack of it — that has to change. Companies end up needing structural surgery because their leaders’ own strategic practices do not allow them to sense the earliest symptoms. Their inadequacy puts their organizations’ lives in peril.

We encourage managers to think of the imperative for incremental change like this: Would you rather ski jump or glide down a “bunny” slope? Both forms of the sport will get you to the bottom of the mountain (hopefully), but you will confront significantly different risks along the way. The latter may be less challenging — but it also causes less stress, boosting the chances that you will arrive at your destination intact and in good spirits. We think your goal should be to gently glide around obstacles as they appear on the horizon. Otherwise, as exciting as the trip may be, it could end in disaster. Many of you who grew up watching the introduction to ABC-TV’s “Wide World of Sports” remember the iconic video of ski jumper Vinko Bogataj, who will be eternally associated with “the agony of defeat.” The chance of failure in such feats is huge; even the slightest miscalculation can lead to catastrophe. How do you know which course you are on? You’d best start with an accurate understanding of your location on the mountain.

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