Smooth Sailing with Change Management

Imagine a large sailboat at sea, skipping across the water on a beautiful day. The day is perfect for sailing. There’s a light breeze, and the crew is relaxed and confident. Everything seems so meant to be.

Now let’s imagine a second sailboat just like the first, with the same great weather. The crew has the same experience level but just started sailing together. No one remembered to do the pre-boarding maintenance, supplies, and navigation checklist. The crew is disorganized. They don’t have what they need, and as for the supplies that they do have, no one knows where to find anything. The destination is undecided and up for debate. No one’s taking orders. Everybody’s on edge. Arguments are breaking out. They know they won’t survive a storm. The longer they sail in this state, the more the tension builds. The situation is becoming urgent, but there seems to be no way out.

It’s an identical boat, yet the journey couldn’t be more different. Our organizations are a lot like one of these sailboats. Or, sometimes, like a whole fleet of sailboats, each with its very own captain and crew.

When you honestly look at your part of the organization, which sailboat analogy resonates more?

The Increase in Chaos

Over its history, an organization will go from being like the first sailboat to being like the second and then back again. This cycle is normal. As internal and external changes impact the company, leaders must adapt. Things like vision, alignment, communication, relationships, and metrics for success need to be updated to be relevant and then implemented from top to bottom. Sometimes the pace of change is too quick, and leaders have to catch up. Other times, an organization may be overwhelmed by an unforeseen calamity, and it has to adapt quickly to survive. This has always been the case.

What’s new, however, is the unprecedented pace of change. Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus coined the acronym VUCA in 1987 to represent a leadership challenge that is relevant now more than ever.

In this environment, our leaders and workforce are under more pressure to perform than ever. Unfortunately, change management problems don’t resolve themselves — unless addressed, they only worsen. Without a timely, coordinated response, VUCA leads to chaos that worsens and spreads. The way that organizations naturally respond to chaos creates inflexibility and makes more chaos inevitable. It also makes things more inefficient and lowers financial performance. Without a deliberate response to opportunities and threats, day-to-day operations only become more difficult.

About the Crew

Returning to the sailboat analogy, think about your workforce. Which boat would resonate with your crew? Maybe you should ask them. In general, the workforce is tired of ad hoc, uncoordinated change. It often feels like the right-hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing, and that’s not working for them. While the long-term employees may have become acclimated to this way of doing business, it’s becoming difficult to recruit the brightest and the best candidates, and those who do take the job are less likely to stay. Every key employee that walks out the door takes your business knowledge and their relationships with them, leaving a shrinking workforce to pick up the slack. The overworked remaining employees may wonder if there are better opportunities elsewhere for them, too.

Long-term employees provide operational continuity — they know the people, processes, and systems that keep the company running and can share that information with new hires. In today’s environment of The Great Resignation, creating a happy and engaged workforce that wants to stick around is a key component to maintaining and growing your competitive advantage and boosting recruitment efforts.

The Link between VUCA and Growth

In a mature industry, competitors often face similar VUCA challenges. Over time, the company that adapts best will pull ahead of the competition.

Whether your organization is entering a planned, deliberate change or was thrown into a change because of a response to external factors, change creates chaos and ambiguity. However, change also creates opportunity and potential. The opportunity and potential of change are only realized when organizations deliberately turn the corner from the downward spiral that chaos can become and take deliberate actions to align strategy and empower the workforce.

We have all experienced change where this deliberate action was missing or failed to achieve its goal of mitigating chaos and supporting the organization through the change. The morale, productivity, and financial costs are high. Chaos leads to ambiguity and perhaps even a sense of dread about the future. It begins to feel like the organization will always be in the white water of change. Change fatigue emerges. Strategic planning and alignment become almost impossible because everything feels like a fire drill, and ambiguity is so high it makes it hard to plan for what might be next. All of this consternation eventually leads to decreased productivity and, ultimately, negative financial results. Once the chaos starts showing up on the key performance indicators, chaos has been festering and metastasizing and is harder to resolve.

Ideally, your organization responds to change and chaos deliberately and organically before financial performance takes a hit. The organization has more financial flexibility. The leaders and workforce still have the needed bandwidth and aren’t yet overcome with change fatigue. Problems are caught while they’re still small and relatively inexpensive to address. The organization is responsive to the direction of the leaders. And the workforce feels valued.

As you can see on The Path to Your Potential graphic, we help our clients to turn the corner from chaos to calm, create strategic alignments, and empower and engage their people so that they’re on track to meet their growth and profit goals.

Leveraging a change strategy takes you beyond ad hoc responses, embeds the change, and enables you to create sustainable results.

Wishing you all smooth sailing!

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Dot Olonovich

Dot Olonovich

Dot Olonovich is a change management strategist who helps clients to develop innovative solutions to their unique growth and transformation challenges.