Three Meaningful Strategies for Managing Rapid Change

Faced with a need to adapt to a changing business environment, many companies opt for quick fixes that ultimately fail. But there are better options.

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The last decade has 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.


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Comments (4)
Edmond Mellina
Time and time again I've seen the "cool kids" (e.g. an innovation team working from a remote innovation hub or tech community) unable to build bridges with the traditional business. As a result, their cool innovations never make it to the market; and they leave in frustration. Everyone loses :-(

I have no fundamental problem with the practice of embedding innovation teams in tech hubs or innovation districts. I used similar approaches myself. It is a great way to boost creativity while shielding the team from the risk-avoidance, control-oriented traits found in most corporate cultures.

However, it is critical to: 1) start working early on preparing the stage for the eventual commercialization of ideas; and 2) make the corporate culture more innovative/nimble.

That usually requires finding ways to link the "cool kids" to the rest of the business. For example the 2-phased approach that Belkin used years ago with its new design team (first getting them away from head office; then bringing them back once the culture had evolved sufficiently). I've also used an "integrated-from-the-get-go" approach - i.e. the transformation team in a remote area but working in partnership with the rest of the organization from day one.

The latter is a little trickier to pull off, but it has the benefit of making change everyone's business - which is a key to success as David Bray pointed out in the article.
Joe Logan
The challenge is real.  Allowing existing staff to run with digital is a dangerous proposition.  This is especially true if they are longer term employees who have assimilated and settled into the required bureaucracy that is required in risk averse firms.  We have seen signs that suggest the best chance for a firm to digitize their business is to split the company in two.  Google and HP at the biggest to Take that step.

It's not ideal,  but worrying about alienating the broader firm during change is not new and there is no way to go through the transformation without a lot of pain and disruption.

Joe Logan
Logan Media
Alanah Bushnell
Great article and very relevant to large organisations who have established stand alone digital hubs or business units set up to drive digital transformation . As above, this silo'd effect of separating the digital and transformation business from the wider organisation only presents further strategic challenges of scale-ability. The rest of the organisation faces being left behind and doing things as it has always done, with only a very small area of the organisation really undergoing true transformation; where we see the shift in mindset, culture and attitude where you will find more digital natives and where innovation and ideas flow freely.
Luciano Sbalchiero
The "rapid change" that we experiment every day in the business is the consequence of the complexity of the era in which we live. What startups are teaching us is that we can no more, make forecasts to address our strategy but we can easier make some tests. I mean we can explore with small efforts new market, new product and immediatly have feedbacks in order to understand the value of that specific market/product. This means that, to manage complexity, we need to change the focus of our research instead of product or new market we should look for new trends.