String tied to pins.

How Do We Successfully Navigate This Chaos?

By Beth R. Chase

May 21, 2018

No leader today can afford to avoid this question. As you are aware, the world is caught up in an intense firestorm of change. We have no roadmap. In many cases, there isn’t even a road ahead. Yet, we have no choice but to tackle the challenge and somehow successfully move our organizations through this.

During this seemingly never-ending turbulence and uncertainty, three things are clear.

One, our good old “best practices”, the ones we honed in our previously challenging environments, just don’t work well in this new state of chaos. Two, the best practices we honed to deal with complex environments don’t work either. And three, talking about the “problem” of change won’t solve it.

So what will work? How can we equip our teams so they can know how to move forward, no matter what is happening?

A chaos guidance system. A chaos GPS (cGPS for short), if you will, composed of a clear, dynamic set of data points people can use to orient themselves in the mayhem. During the last year, we have identified a few data points that our clients have found useful to consider as they craft their corporate cGPS systems.

THE RIGHT BETS

The first set of coordinates your people will need? The company’s big strategic bets. Intentionally decide what direction the organization should be aiming towards, given its history, capabilities, core competencies and the current reality. Create an integrated set of initiatives to orient everyone to that new trajectory. Note that not every company will always need—or even want—a Disruptive in their set.

Initiatives

The Strategic
Prepare to move where you anticipate the puck is going

The Operational
Continue doing what you’re doing—only faster, cheaper and better

The Disruptive
Identify potential disruptions to your industry worth betting on

Focus your investments on these new strategic bets. Yes, that will likely mean that you will need to stop investing in things that serve your old bets. People resist? Point out that spending time solving for the expectations of the past means you will waste valuable time and resources that would be better spent on securing the future.

REFINE YOUR CORE

Many of us love shiny new things. Unfortunately, starting too many new initiatives all at once can suddenly—and all too easily—overextend your organization and leave you unfocused and losing ground. The impact can be disastrous. You may need to redefine your core in terms of the new value trajectory you’re on.

  • What are your capabilities, resources and core competencies?
  • Which of these are extremely rare (as in, what do you have that your competitors really want)?
  • Which are hard to imitate, find or acquire?
  • What is missing to make your core exceptional?

If your core simply needs adjusting, then do whatever it takes to hone it. But if you find yourself looking at a major do over, revisit your big bets before going any further.

SHARED COMMITMENTS

Senior executives globally believe that 44% of strategic initiatives do not succeed . More than fifty percent of change initiatives fail. Even more strategies than that don’t even deliver the value intended. Why such a high fail rate?2

Strategy is important. Execution is essential.

Effective Decision = Right Decision X Commitment to the Decision

Execution relies on the commitment of people to get the job done. When it comes to coordinating all the work that must be done in teams throughout an organization, all too often something’s missing. A set of shared commitments to align and work together across functional areas. These cross-functional commitments only happen when leaders help people get clear about why they are coming together and then engage them in co-creating what they’re going to deliver and how they’re going to do it.

THE INTELLIGENCE OF “WE”

Most people succeed in business and life by relying on their “smarts” (a.k.a. their individual expertise). Knowledge is made up of what worked in the past. Silver bullets, magic formulas: they’re old answers to old problems. Unfortunately, they are no longer enough.

We’re facing problems we’ve never seen before. We can no longer expect to succeed by using our knowledge.

If we can’t rely on our knowledge, how can we successfully lead people through chaos? By relying on the intelligence of all of us, learning together.

How do we access our collective intelligence? As leaders, we can shift from “expert” to “learner” before people start questioning or resisting our new big bets. We can park our ideology and our egos at the door. We can admit that we don’t have 100% of the answers worked out and that we’re 150% committed to really engaging with the tough questions together. We may even acknowledge our own incompetence when it comes to leading through chaos (after all, we’ve never done this before) and how uncomfortable it is to be a learner once again. Then we can start to bring different groups of people together to look at what we’re setting out to do and ask, “What do you see from where you’re standing?” and “What if we…?”.

STRETCH BOUNDARIES

Safely navigating chaos together calls for extreme creativity. And extreme creativity calls for access to more diverse perspectives.

Drop constraints and conventions that limit your people from collaboratively partnering outside their normal silos and sectors. You’re no longer just looking internally to span any boundaries between divisions. You’re no longer just looking to customers as brand advocates and sources of new product or service ideas. You are now looking at your competitors, distributors and suppliers as potential creative partners and, perhaps, even as future customers. Be specific with your people about exactly which boundaries you are willing to stretch to bring in more diverse intelligence and creativity.

“GROUND ZERO” DECISION MAKING

How fast can you deliver on your initiatives? How fast can you flex to respond to changing market dynamics?

Agility depends on how fast decisions can be made close to the point of execution and how aligned they are with the company’s new direction. Painfully complicated decision-making processes pose the greatest risk to agile execution. Redesign them as if you were starting from “ground zero”, bearing in mind three things.

  1. Reinventing decision making isn’t about achieving perfection. It’s about achieving speed so you can deliver what your customers consider valuable in days and weeks, instead of months and years.
  2. Data analytics can accelerate decision making and improve the quality of your choices. The intricate dance between big data, machine intelligence and the internet of things is playing out at warp speed in fields beyond tech (like healthcare, finance, biotech and manufacturing, to name a few). The challenge is to stay on top of what is currently available and possible for your organization. Best to spend now on building data analytics, change agility’s second cousin, as an essential organizational capability. Guaranteed, starting next year will be too late.
  3. Some decisions that affect your company will now be occurring outside the organization. Don’t forget to factor that in, especially if you’ve made your organizational boundaries more permeable. Encourage robust dialogue and debate to make the best decisions possible with the information and perspectives you have.

All too often, we lose sight of our customers when trying to make our way through chaos. We don’t mean to. And so, if there is a fundamental algorithm to build into your cGPS, it is this. KEEP YOUR CUSTOMERS PLAINLY IN SIGHT. Find out what their experiences are with your organization. Or even better yet, engage in customer journey mapping and have them identify their pain points. Find out where there is friction in frontline interactions, doggedly go after that friction and iteratively eliminate it. Empathize with your customers as human beings. Make them #1. After all, without them, you won’t have a company to lead.


Sources:

1 Gail Severini, “Time to kill the phantom 70% failure rate?”, The Association of Change Management Professionals website, November 26, 2013. Accessed July 31, 2017, at http://bit.ly/2jABd9F.
2 David Leonard and Claude Coltea, “Most change initiatives fail — but they don’t have to,” Gallup News website, May 24, 2013. Accessed October 2, 2017 at http://bit.ly/2Bb05er.