Wrestling With Strategy & Change

Virtually my entire career has been, in one way or another, focussed on the creation of change. I am not a status-quo kind of guy. I’m also not, by all accounts, an operations kind of guy. Routine, repetition and repeatability are not my forte. New and different and (hopefully) better are by and large my happy place.

Introducing new processes, structures, systems, methodologies and organizations has been my raison d’être throughout. That has been as an internal change agent, an external consultant and a somewhere-in-between coach and advisor. Those changes have come in all shapes, flavours and sizes, The appeal of this work is that it is always different; every day is unique, and every organization and initiative represents a new challenge.

Reflecting back on a career that is starting to be longer than I would care to admit, it is interesting to explore how my thinking on managing change—and its critical drivers—has evolved. My initial domain was project management, working to get stuff done on time and on budget. Larger projects and more complex changes led to a presumption that more process and consistency was required. Continued challenges underscored the need for effective leadership and better managing of teams. Questionable decisions and direction led to the need for better governance. Questionable projects and implausible motivations led to the need for better initiation and sounder business cases. And questionable priorities led to the need for better strategy.

The result is an inexorable exploration up the food chain of organizational strategy in a quest to address and resolve problems, and enable strategic change to be (more) successful. That’s led to a fascinating series of a projects for a number of intriguing customers.

My journey has also led to the recognition that there is no single source of problems, no quick fix and no magic bullet. There is no one single thing that, if changed, allows strategy development and change implementation to be successful. Instead, there are a lot of messy, interconnected and complex things that support, subvert, undermine and influence each other on the road to meaningful change.

It would be easy to resignedly throw up your hands in frustration at this point. Or to just pick one dimension and focus on getting it obsessively right at the expense of all others. The challenge is that neither response is effective as a strategy in the long run… or even the short one. Abandoning the enterprise won’t change it. Piecemeal approaches often tackle symptoms while ignoring problems, and they also typically result in myriad unintended and unappealing consequences.

So what is an enterprising change agent to do? What is essential is to first recognize that bringing about a new order of things is complex, will be awkward and will have a large number of moving, conflicted and interrelated parts. Imagine playing Jenga on a violently turbulent airplane while blindfolded and you start to appreciate the magnitude of the challenge.

Accepting complexity leads to a subsequent but equally important insight: we already have tools to manage that complexity. With an emphasis on the plural. This is not just about one tool; we are not simply arming ourselves with a hammer and making every organizational challenge resemble a nail. It is about adopting a range of tools. We need project management. And strategy. And decision making. And leadership. And governance. And structure. And process. We need all of these in different degrees, and each challenge requires leveraging them in different degrees at different angles with different amounts of force.

Most importantly, effective change is a creative process of adapting what we know to tackle the unique challenges associated with each problem. To lead change, we need to confidently move forward without knowing what the solution will be or the process required to get there. We need enough confidence in our abilities to believe that we have the capacity to handle the challenges that will present themselves. We need to know that we have enough support and encouragement to take on the challenge, even in the face of inevitable opposition. And we need to move forward knowing that those around us might need some time to catch up.

There is a delicate balance that we are managing here. Realizing strategic change is about creating a tension between our current reality and our desired future. Move forward too fast, and you risk leaving casualties in your wake; stay where you are, and you risk complacency. In all responses, you will have supporters, challengers and cautious observers. It is unreasonable to expect the whole organization to move forward together. It is equally impractical to wait for rest of the organization to be ready to change before you start. Begin, experiment, experience, adapt and evolve.

I don’t pretend to have all of the answers in realizing strategy and managing change. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure that I’ve figured out all of the questions. This article alone integrates numerous principles, processes, models and structures. It ignores many, many more. In the coming weeks and months (and, if I’m honest, years) I’ll work to unpack and expand on these ideas, even as I discover new ones. I hope you’ll continue to join me on the journey.

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