A bit of splashing would surely make drowning easier to identify, but sadly, drowning tends to be a silent assassin. As retired Coast Guard Aviation Survival Technician Mario Vittone (2013) shares, "Sometimes the most common indication that someone is drowning is that they don't look like they're drowning." The same could be said for massive organizations who collapse like an avalanche, hiding their danger until one additional stress unleashes destruction. But, such collapses also tend to be masked - and they tend to be masked in the same way that drowning conceals itself. This would seem contrary to intuitive assumptions about staving off death. Vittone and Pia (2006) voice our expectation:
Most people assume that a drowning person will splash, yell, and wave for help; and why wouldn’t they? That’s what we see on television. Without training, we are conditioned first to think of drowning as a violent struggle that is noisy and physical. It is not.
Instead, the expert survivalists share what generally takes place. Instinctive Drowning Response represents a person's attempts to avoid the actual or perceived suffocation in the water. The suffocation in water triggers a constellation of autonomic nervous system responses that result in external, unlearned, instinctive drowning movements that are easily recognizable by trained rescue crews.
The struggle is not one of rational thinking about what is the most thoughtful means of communicating the need for help; rather, the body’s automatic survival mechanisms kick in, often inhibiting secondary response systems, like speech or flagging which unnecessarily utilize energy and oxygen for communicating need or concerns.
Organizations, too, have analogous systems of automatic response to life-threatening circumstances. And, those responses, like cost-cutting efficiency measures can be effective in the extremely short-term to keep the books balanced and creditors appeased. But, drowning is often the result of an incapability to peacefully and continually engage the present. This is why the one drowning strains to stay afloat with minimal exaggeration while sucking in watery breaths. Eventually, however, such measures fail. And, if someone does not save them, then they die.
Aiming for icebergs is a choice
But organizations are not destined to drown. They “go under,” because leaders lack the strategy capable of engaging the present. That is not to say the strategy is poor. It could be an imminently logical and thoughtful approach to achieve organizational goals. But, it could be a strategy that could not foresee the present context, and therefore operates under assumptions no longer tenable. Consider the drowning victim’s automatic response: struggling to remain “above” by pressing down on what lay below works when the objects pressed upon are solid, but when the medium is liquid, the result is a cyclical bouncing which actually works against the victim. So what is an organization to do if even quality strategy development can fail? The answer is to develop a strategic foresight competency.
No one working in your organization can foretell the future. And, you will not be hiring such a prodigy anytime soon. Still, that does not prohibit you from preparing for it better. And, if an unpredictable future can upend your plans and purposes so easily, then any improvement would seemingly be worth pursuing, especially if the improvement were to be a process competency enhancing the organization’s strategy work rather than a time-bound idea or assumption-restricted strategic plan. Essentially, this means strategic plans are only as valuable as the assumptions they are based on are true. Assumptions, which must be accurately predictive or flexible enough to qualify the plan, underpin strategy making, and strategic foresight is the competency that aids the organization in confirming, disconfirming, hybridizing, and generating assumptions. It is the work of enriching the strategy making process so that what results is more resilient to environmental changes. Alternatively, it heals strategy of its brittleness. As a result, strategy making is more robust and resultant strategies more adaptive and savvy. To illustrate the process, consider the following reasoning, which is not a prediction, but rather is an example of how foresight work might look in leading strategy formation.
When Facebook died: A marketing mockup
User tracking data seems to point toward Facebook’s loss of users and bloated registries (Canarella, 2014; Marks, 2013). Like population trends, signups occur, but they are less impactful than deactivation – especially for the company’s bottom-line, which is inherently tied up in sheer user population mass to which advertisements, desktop and mobile app, are pushed and from which user data is pulled. Of course, a different strategy could change the impact of user-numbers on that bottom-line (Edwards, 2014). Yet, with the loss of perceived invulnerability, that unbridled optimism for growth prospects, comes the loss of momentum. Surely, the pendulum of biases could lead onlookers to assume that geometric growth is only succeeded by geometric decline, but that would be narrow-minded. Arithmetic growth, a cyclical hybrid, cycles of growth and decline – like booms and busts – could also occur, among other possibilities (Risen, 2014). Assuming rigidly makes the strategic planning simpler, but it makes the strategic plan less flexible – and therefore less useful. In Facebook’s case, to assume the organization is rigidly stuck in a position of imminent and unalterable demise, would be to assume their strategic plan is rigid and could not anticipate for loss, like in the instances of younger-user interest or user disillusionment with the platform’s commercialization.
Supposing, however, that Facebook could be entering long-term decline as a potential future, how could that foresight consideration be leveraged as a strategic tool? Perhaps the marketing department in your organization has a social media presence. Perhaps they utilize Facebook promotion posts and analytic tools to gain understanding of your market segments. If Facebook is in decline, then how useful will that platform be for such marketing activities, for customer analysis, and for cultivating a strong marketing competency long-term? It would seem less useful than when Facebook, as a platform, presented an untouchable tool for social connections and user-information divulgence. In the medium-term, that horizon to which strategic planning looks, might the marketing department, therefore, contemplate shifting reliance upon Facebook to other platforms – as well as reestablishing marketing functions that are less platform reliant? And, in the short-term horizon, the department may respond by budgeting less heavily for Facebook ads placement and Page development. Furthermore, they might consider training in the use of competitive platforms as well as explore opportunities to transition their fans from Facebook to a proprietary website or blog.
The above mockup of the way in which a single, confirming trend could affect a major social platform that is heavily leveraged by many companies’ marketing departments is a sample of how foresight can be strategically applied for organizational enrichment. Simply, this is what strategic foresight does, and why, as a competency, it enables organizations to remain adaptable amid uncertain futures. For the marketing department that uses Facebook as a key social media marketing platform, such foresight could be leveraged to gain the insight that putting all the marketing hopes in the Facebook basket may not be the wisest path forward. Moreover, Facebook’s adaptive planning may be less concerned with ensuring other organizations have access to the greatest number of customers than assumed.
Learning to swim
To reassert our starting point, drowning often occurs without radically successful survival efforts ever emerging. In moments of panic, we tend to hold fast to our assumptions rather than revisit them. Frankly, in the throes of death, all we can do is struggle and hope for rescue, unless, of course, we have prepared for the emergency. Critical emergency training is akin to that strategy work directing how to manage defined contexts. And, strategic foresight, therefore, is the overarching wisdom that emergencies happen, and training is a useful manner of preparing for them. You see, useful strategy work arises from foresight work, from the realistic and humble assumption that contingency thinking is reasonable. Assuming the future your strategy is built for is the future your strategy will undoubtedly face, however, is not.
About the Author:
David M. Stehlik is a passionate strategist and organizational motivator. Alongside private consulting, he is an instructor for the University of Saint Francis’s new online MBA program. He earned a BA in Political Economy and Christian Studies from Hillsdale College and an MBA in International Business, Marketing, and Administration from the University of Saint Francis, and he is currently finishing a doctoral degree in Strategic Leadership from Regent University. His international experience is extensive, including travel through Africa, South America, and Southeastern Europe. Beyond the U.S., he has consulted for leaders in Bulgaria, Macedonia, Romania, and Serbia as well as for Midwest businesses, youth camps, and various entrepreneurs.
*Image courtesy of Koratmember / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Cannarella, J., & Spechler, J. A. (2014, January 17). Epidemiological modeling of online social network dynamics. In arXiv. Retrieved May 19, 2014, from http://arxiv.org/pdf/1401.4208v1.pdf
Edwards, J. (2014, April 29). This is what the decline of Facebook looks like. In Business Insider. Retrieved May 19, 2014, from http://www.businessinsider.com/decline-of-facebook-user-numbers-2014-4
Marks, G. (2013, August 19). Why Facebook is in decline. In Forbes. Retrieved May 19, 2014, from http://www.forbes.com/sites/quickerbettertech/2013/08/19/why-facebook-is-in-decline/
Risen, T. (2014, January 27). Don't predict Facebook's decline yet: Facebook should pursue growth despite overhyped Princeton research. . In USA News & World Report. Retrieved May 19, 2014, from http://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2014/01/27/dont-predict-facebooks-decline-yet
Vittone, M. (2013, June 4). Drowning doesn't look like drowning. In Slate: Snapshots of life at home. Retrieved May 19, 2014, from http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/family/2013/06/rescuing_drowning_children_how_to_know_when_someone_is_in_trouble_in_the.html
Vittone, M., & Pia, F. A. (2006). “It doesn’t look like they’re drowning” - Recognize instinctive drowning response. On Scene, 14. Retrieved May 19, 2014, from http://www.uscg.mil/hq/cg5/cg534/On%20Scene/OSFall06.pdf
A bit of splashing would surely make drowning easier to identify, but sadly, drowning tends to be a silent assassin. As retired Coast Guard Aviation Survival Technician Mario Vittone (2013) shares, “Sometimes the most common indication that someone is drowning is that they don’t look like they’re drowning.” The same could be said for massive organizations who collapse like an avalanche, hiding their danger until one additional stress unleashes destruction. But, such collapses also tend to be masked – and they tend to be masked in the same way that drowning conceals itself. Read More >David Stehlik Articles
If you monitored the United States’ presidential election process or the corporate woes of Nokia and Research in Motion as they try to recover what were formerly massive stakes in the cellular phone market, then you realize that worthwhile change, even when planned, is neither simple nor easy; it is complex and difficult. Organizations struggling most with change, therefore, seem to be the ones that also struggle most with innovative thinking. Successful organizational changes are possible – just not as clear-cut and idealistic as some management books and journal articles would lead you to believe. Many readers can likely recall an encounter with an Organizational Development (OD) consultant ending with a forgotten, polished report. Separated by time and distance from the change implementation process, the projects appeared clean and clear recipes for new life. But, just as recipes are ineffective if the proper ingredients are not gathered in the correct measurements, at the right time, and combined by the proper tools, so change-management plans are also ineffective if misdirected and misapplied.
Organizational leaders, with or without the aid of consultants, are responsible for these spectacular changes or disasters. C-suite leaders are routinely hired and fired with the understanding that they will bring the “magic” that makes change work, resulting in innovation, efficiency, increased brand value and earnings, reduced turnover, and improved talent acquisition. Surely, useful methods for successful change exist and are routinely highlighted by change-management experts. Still, there are also obstacles that hinder change management – some errors of commission, others of omission, and they primarily affect individuals on the receiving end of leaders’ visions for change. Among these obstacles, any which makes or breaks follower buy-in is nonnegotiable. It must be addressed well. When unaccounted for, these organizational booby-traps trip up unaware interventionists and halt progress – to the often repeated rate of 70% failure.
Two coalescing perspectives of the change process have dominated OD: Kurt Lewin’s (1890-1947) three-step approach and, more recently, Chris Argyris’ (1923-) theory of intervention and double-loop learning. For Lewin, change processes consisted of:
1) unfreezing the present condition,
2) changing to a new condition as favorable affections replace affections for the old condition, and
3) refreezing the process by which the new condition becomes established.
Essentially, the need for change is realized, desired, and then consistently pursued after a semblance of acceptance for the change is obtained. Argyris’ theory built upon Lewin’s model by introducing discussion about persistent evaluation. In short, he promoted what is called systems thinking, which examines the foundational issues for why problems arise, promoting change at that level. For instance, in collecting performance data, this would mean not only examining the collected data, but it would also entail critiquing the data collection process i.e. Were the correct data collected and the means of collection proper? The point is that alleviating symptoms is not a long-term strategy for successful OD. Leaders need to address root causes – the metaphorical infection causing the sore throat. Effective leaders manage these change efforts like skirmishes comprising a war campaign. For each, they rally their troops’ morale, negotiate resources and leverage competencies, study the benefits and drawbacks of the environment, and assess costs. Such accounting is needed every step of the way because, if not recognized as an opportunity to be well-prepared, each aspect may become a potential obstacle for followers’ change readiness.
The approach most leaders take, resulting in that dismal 30% success rate, is one of firefighting. They see change as inviting resistance, and so they prepare for resistance and learn to “put out fires” along the way. Their fact-pattern is:
Followers naturally react to change, or the idea of change. It is often a matter of perceived control. Some feel they lose while others feel they can only benefit from the change. Successfully timing change events, therefore, requires leaders to monitor followers’ motivations and evidence of growing dissatisfaction with the present situation and greater affinity for the proposed change (willingness to complete additional work, spend extra time onsite, work jointly in cross-functional teams, etc.). These signs indicate readiness for change. Unilateral action should replace politicking when the coalition in favor of change is strong and vocal.
Leaders do not have to settle for such adversarial change-management scenarios. Those projects will exhaust all factions and exacerbate organizational tensions. Instead, leaders ought to seek improvement in organizational relationships throughout the change-management process. These events bring leader-follower tensions and underlying assumptions to the surface, and so they are prime opportunities to address misalignments and strengthen understanding of the organization’s unifying mission while improving operations. The following list of ingredients for effective change management will increase the likelihood of change “sticking” and the organization improving.
1. Organization assessment
Even novice organizations have endured change efforts, and so leaders can look to history for the strengths and weaknesses evidenced in past events, considering: Are the parties to change the same? What cultural barriers remain or have arisen since? Is this change bigger or smaller in scope than past changes? Is this change necessary? How likely will we survive this change? Are there alternatives?
2. Developed vision
Without guidance, change efforts fail. Leaders are responsible for developing the vision for what change will bring – incorporating the needs and expectations of followers and answering and overcoming their concerns. Visions need to clearly describe the organization’s problem as well as inspire followers in counting the cost of change, concluding what is to come is better and more desirable that what is at hand. Fear is another strong motivator; and, when used honorably, powerful visions of negative consequences for failing to change provide additional motivation.
3. Severed ties
In his seminal work, Reflections on the Revolution in France, British statesman Edmund Burke (1791) wrote, “A state without the means of some change is without the means of its conservation.” His point was that the reform process recognizes institutions’ need for innovation, but such innovations improve institutions only if they uphold the institutions’ purposes. Strong ties to the past are good when anchoring policy decisions, but they must serve the organizational mission. When they do not do that, leaders must help followers disconnect from former ways of operating. As confusion can overtake and divide followers who may wonder whether leaders are hijacking the organization, leaders must be careful. Consider the strife caused by differences in American churches undergoing changes in worship styles. Research shows that shared resolve to change across diverse groups is yoked to successful change implementation. Thus, the more readily the status quo can be questioned by followers, the sooner the organization can adapt to present circumstances.
In 1949, the infamous Mann Gulch fire took the lives of thirteen smokejumpers. The wildfire was unassuming, until drastic changes in the environment caused it to erupt into an inferno of death. Because of their quick-thinking, three men survived. Organizational leaders must recognize the level of immediacy required not only to motivate change, but also understand and effectively communicate the threshold after which change will no longer be possible without grave consequences (cost-prohibitive, lost market share, lost talent, agreement deadlines, etc.).
5. Strong leadership
Strong leaders effectively motivate followers to change given the particulars of a situation. Such leaders often have know-how related to the change event and are respected by the followers involved in it. They are crucial for gaining followers’ support and preference, meaning that followers give such leaders the benefit of the doubt when judging whether the leaders actually considered followers’ good before recommending and guiding change.
6. Key follower sponsorship
Depending on the size of your organization, the primary leader may need to secure the support of and then charge certain followers to become secondary leaders. The further removed the primary leader is from those immediately involved in the required changes, the more important it becomes to have leaders in closer proximity also actively supporting change. Distance creates uncertainty, which dissolves trust – a key resource leveraged by successful leaders. Leaders closer to the action should be better equipped to secure the necessary commitment. But, such leaders must have strong rapport with their followers, or their involvement will be counterproductive.
7. Clear implementation plan
If followers are persuaded but provided with no details of who is responsible for what tasks and outcomes, when such will take place, and how the effort should proceed, along with clearly defined lines of communication for decision-making and mechanisms for follower-feedback and readjustments midcourse, then they will likely become anxious, disengaged, and frustrated. The best plans generate follower ownership and elicit immediate action, having been co-developed with followers’ input from the beginning.
8. Enabled followers
Smooth change occurs when followers have power commensurate with their responsibility. Have you ever been tasked with a responsibility for which you were not equipped? Such inadequate empowerment results in follower stress. In the United States, stress leads to losses in the hundreds of billions of dollars annually. Leaders, therefore, need to support and champion their followers, providing them with the resources and organizational support to achieve reasonable outcomes. It is an unfair – and likely to be opposed – change effort which expects from followers what they are incapable of providing (not having access to reasonable resources, required authorizations, vital information, key contacts, etc.). Early adopters, properly empowered, can prove decisive as to whether change sticks or slips.
9. Communication, collaboration, and credibility
Socrates’ statement, “Speak, that I may know thee,” illustrates the important role of communication in manifesting intent. Followers look to leaders for direction and encouragement. Leaders must honor this relationship where they are yielded influence by providing reliability and demonstrating integrity in how they manage the change process – telling the truth even when it means conveying uncertainty as well as less-than-flattering news about the change process proceedings. Collaborating with key followers in communication efforts will help the truth permeate follower constituencies so that rumors are ineffective. Additionally, it will improve trust between followers and top leaders, as followers will hear confirming information from the secondary leaders. Leaders should embrace dialogue, especially when it permits them the opportunity to strengthen followers’ clarity about the organization’s mission.
By highlighting successes along the way in the change process, leaders can help cement positive attitudes about the change in followers’ minds. Some followers may be skeptical, but they will eventually support the change if they continually see their peers and leaders rewarded (financially, socially, emotionally, etc.) for positive engagement. Since development entails the idea of continuousness, reinforcement should not focus on the change specifics; rather, it should promote the culture recognizing the need for change and proactively engaging to strengthen the organization given environmental particulars.
Ultimately, leaders must think through their organization’s situation with humility, being open to correction and advice. In doing so, they will earn their followers’ trust and mitigate many concerns about what change means for their futures.
The change-management approach described above is akin to culture-management. The ability to successfully change an organization for greater effectiveness depends on the organization’s ethos – the thinking patterns of its people. Consider this: research shows the failure of change leaders to address this critical concern is listed as a major reason why 80% of corporate mergers and acquisitions fail. The unasked questions driving success or failure in change efforts are: Can we adapt, improve, innovate, and lead? If not, can we become an organization that does? The ten ingredients provided acknowledge this organizational need for leaders and followers who yoke themselves to the future, understanding the times and honoring the past by properly addressing present and future circumstances. In so doing, they create more collaborative environments where change processes produce fruit rather than thorns.
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About the author:
David Stehlik is an independent strategy consultant and in Regent University’s doctoral program in strategic leadership. He received his B.A. from Hillsdale College in Hillsdale, MI and MBA from the University of Saint Francis in Fort Wayne, IN.
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Removing the Bitter Taste of Change-10 Ingredients for Organizational Transformation You Can Stomach
If you monitored the United States’ presidential election process or the corporate woes of Nokia and Research in Motion as they try to recover what were formerly massive stakes in the cellular phone market, then you realize that worthwhile change, even when planned, is neither simple nor easy; it is complex and difficult. Organizations struggling most with change, therefore, seem to be the ones that also struggle most with innovative thinking. Read More >David Stehlik Articles