There was a time in the not-so-distant past when executives had a simple goal for their organizations: stability. But market transparency, instantaneous communications, labor mobility, and global capital flows have swept this comfortable scenario out to sea. In most industries and in almost all companies—from giants to micro-enterprises—heightened competition from new markets have forced management to concentrate on something they happily avoided in the past: change.
Companies today need to figure out how they can capitalize on uncertainty. Success in this era means managing through change. A solid, static plan just won’t cut it. So rather than trying to plan for the inevitable and manage the change, leaders should turn their attention to managing through change.
What does managing through change look like?
Good question. I was recently thinking about this idea while on vacation—as one does. While it’s tough to come up with a one-size-fits-all methodology that fits every organization, perhaps a metaphor is a useful place to start.
Surfing and Change
My husband is a surfer. While he doesn’t get to surf as much as he’d like in D.C., we often spend vacations on the water. He surfs. I attempt to surf and spend a lot of time watching surfers and thinking about business metaphors.
On a recent trip, while I was bobbing in the ocean waiting for a wave (okay, more honestly, I was trying to catch my breath after falling and paddling back out for the hundredth time), I got to thinking about how surfing is like managing through change.
The best surfers are masters at riding the big waves. They know better than to try to manage the waves (I’m not even sure what that would look like). They don’t spend a lot of time hoping they’ll be able to stand up or planning to use the very best technique to balance on the board. They feel the flow of the ocean way more than they manage or hope or plan.
In broad terms, this is what it’s like to manage through change. Instead of bracing for the bump, skilled leaders accept that rough waters are coming, learn to embrace the change, and engage their entire organizations.
Now let’s try to move past mere metaphor, shall we? Rather than offering a single methodology here, what follows is a “Top 5” list of best practices and guiding principles that can be adapted to fit a variety of situations calling for managing through the change.
1. Watch the sets come in.
In surf lingo, “set waves” refers to a group of larger waves. There’s a rhythm to the ocean on any given day or time of day. As you keep an eye on the horizon and watch these sets coming through, you start to get a feel for the rhythm and begin to prepare to catch a ride.
There’s also a rhythm to markets and if you watch the trends, you will get a feel for it. Managing through change means anticipating market trends and developing flexible strategies to prepare your team for what’s coming. In a highly competitive environment, that means going deeper than your competitors. Is there an untapped resource, you’ve had your eye on for some time? Perhaps it’s time to bring in that consultant or find another way to infuse fresh ideas.
In addition to being prepared for market trends, set your expectations. There are times when pulling back and being a bit more conservative is the right move. But this can be a hard pill to swallow, especially for highly competitive leaders and teams. So set the expectation from the outset: choose a date (or other benchmark) by which time to make a decision. Until then, maintain awareness, anticipate what you can, and prepare.
2. Be in position to catch that wave.
Sometimes the waves in business and on the ocean roll in more slowly than you would like. The “hurry up and wait” cycle can get old. So, make sure you are taking advantage of the waiting periods to understand where you are, what the wave (AKA change) looks like, and where you want to be at the end of your ride (i.e., you want to avoid being smashed into the rocks!).
Knowing your goal and having your exit strategy is just as important as riding that big wave as far as it wants to take you. Get in position by creating a game plan that’s flexible enough for your purposes:
- Define success carefully. Consider the ideal goal, but also what, at a minimum, will count as a win. Be generous.
- Do your market research. Don’t skimp on this step! Rushing into a big change without doing the right research sets everyone up for failure.
- Understand your strengths and weaknesses. Transformation affects every level of your organization. Make sure you identify leaders early in the process and give them the tools they need to execute their specific missions. Also, look for any gaps in communication across departments. Strategize about how to create more cooperation.
3. It takes more work than you think to catch that wave.
Paddle harder (or, as my husband says/yells, “paddle, paddle, paddle, paddle!”). Once you know you are in the right position and ready to catch the wave, the real work begins. You have to dig deep and do the work to catch that wave, so you can jump up on that board. Then you have to dig deep again to maintain your balance and ride that wave.
We know all too well that market forces shift. So even if you brilliantly complete the first two steps above, the market can suddenly leave you stranded alone on a deserted island. Alternatively, if those market forces do hold in just the way you were hoping, you’ll likely run into others surfing the same wave. So you need to be ready to adjust to markets shifting AND to competition shifting.
4. Waves don’t always do what you want them to do—be ready to adapt.
Change projects, like big waves, pick up momentum as they build. If you aren’t prepared to adapt, things can get out of control quickly. This means leaders at all levels of the organization must be empowered to rapidly adapt.
Successful startups are often successful because they have mastered the art of managing through change in precisely this way. Their agility gives them a huge advantage over large competitors in a market that rewards adaptability. But even giants can adopt and modify plays from the startup playbook.
For example, what is the status of your innovation pipeline? Is there an effective process for employees at all levels to introduce ideas up the chain? Is the culture such that employees feel motivated, heard, and supported in suggesting innovations?
5. Enjoy the ride and watch the view—you earned it.
In the midst of all this, don’t forget to savor the moment. Even if you only manage to ride the wave for a short time, take pleasure in the fact that it was your hard work that helped you see this new vista. And, appreciate the hard work that it took to get there. Going through the process has given you insights that you can use in the future too.
Finally, get ready to do it all again. Change, like waves, keeps coming.
While the Audacia Strategies team can’t promise to teach you how to surf Banzai Pipeline, we are experts at helping firms of all sizes manage through big waves of business transformation. Hey, we’ll take our inspiration wherever we can get it! If you’re looking for a bold team to help you build your way through change, contact us and let’s set up a consultation.
Photo Credit: IKO / 123RF Stock Photo