When It Comes to Change, How Fast and Agile Is Your Company?

I am delighted to introduce Pamela Dennis, Ph.D., a long-time friend, colleague, and former owner of Destra Consulting, who has graciously agreed to share her experience and wisdom on the subject of "change-ability" in this guest post.

I work with executives who want to grow their companies, but they’re concerned that creating change will slow things down and make their organizations ponderous.

When it comes to growth, they want their companies to be racehorses, not elephants.

But did you know that elephants, despite being the world’s largest land animal, run up to 25 miles per hour? Usain Bolt, currently the world's fastest human, averaged 23.3 miles per hour in his world record 100-meter race.

Growth and size don’t always have to make companies slow and unwieldy.

In my experience, the critical factor is having a company that possesses “change-ability” – the natural capability for speed and agility in response to an ever-changing environment.

The 3 Most Important Drivers of “Change-ability”

How do you create a company with speed and agility while at the same time maintaining current advantage? Your company must have these core abilities:

Lightning Responsiveness

Your company needs to be able to translate ideas and analyze issues faster than your competitors.

That means you’ll need to respond to rapidly evolving external information while you tolerate ambiguity and evaluate potential implications for your business plans.

In his annual letter to Amazon’s shareholders in 2016, Jeff Bezos wrote:

“Choosing not to fail fast comes at a price...If you’re good at course correcting, being wrong may be less costly than you think, whereas being slow is going to be expensive for sure.”

Lightning responsiveness isn’t just something leaders cultivate – every employee of your company must have line of sight to factors that impact their part of the world, like technology changes, market or global events, regulatory trends, or customer and co-worker demographics.

High Velocity Decision Making

To become fast and agile, your company needs to have the ability to make the right decisions quicker with a level of acceptance that drives unified action.

Making cross-functional decisions does not have to mean endless meetings and “up and over” approvals. Many decisions are really a bundle of smaller, interconnected choices that involve groups or individuals.

Decisions require collaboration, focus, and imperfect information. You’ll rarely (if ever) have access to perfect information, so you’ll need to gather the information that is necessary and sufficient to act upon and take decisive action.

Decision-making at your company will be like a rugby scrum of real-time analysis, debate, and commitment.

Jeff Bezos also wrote:

“Most decisions should probably be made with somewhere around 70 percent of the information you wish you had. If you wait for 90 percent, in most cases you’re probably being slow.”

Engaged Urgency

 You’ll need the ability to harness every brain in the company to generate, work through, and learn from a diversity of ideas – then execute with urgency.

In his book, A Sense of Urgency, John Kotter wrote:

“Sense of urgency is a gut level determination one feels when they wake each morning—alert, ready for action and focused on accomplishing what’s important.”

This engaged urgency requires transparency of information about opportunities, progress, issues, results, and unintended consequences.

The mantra must be “Test and Learn” and “Fast Failing is Good”. This action and inclusion needs to occur not just at the “bottom” of your organization, but at every node of a network of information and activity.

It also needs to happen at the edges of your company, where the organization touches its larger system, including suppliers, customers, markets, and communities.

How Do Leaders Create Change-ability?

We are led to believe that all leaders must be visionary, clear, and charismatic, and that they should always “let us know where they stand.”

My experience with really good organizational leaders is a bit different. Yes, they can inspire, and they’re certainly focused. They also behave in ways that let us “know where they stand.” But equally important is their capacity to move paradoxically across a continuum of behaviors

Here are a few of the notable leadership behaviors I have observed as leaders drive the growth and “change-ability” of their organizations:

I worked for several months with a large government telecom company overseas. The company was transitioning to being privately owned.

The CFO knew they needed to develop products faster, improve their time to market, eliminate bureaucratic habits of decision-making, and give greater line-of-sight to the 38,000 employees toward things that drove results.

This leader and his CEO had to re-make the company for this faster world, and make it happen quickly.

We designed a plan to immediately engage 25% of the company to look at and make changes in:

  1. How they were working (including their own experiences and process/cost data).
  2. How they looked at the new world of competition, and its potential impact.
  3. How people made decisions, and whether they had sufficient decision authority (i.e. no hierarchical or bureaucratic barriers) so people could make changes, test them for results, and keep moving forward.

In just a few days of collaborative problem solving, data analysis, and dialogue on options, the teams not only came to understand what helped or hurt (like customer service and product launches), but how to streamline decision-making for faster execution. They produced plans they felt responsible to execute, not recommendations awaiting approval.

This CFO wanted to support a more responsive, agile organization, so he modeled and reinforced the abilities that grow company “change-ability”: lightning responsiveness, high velocity decision making; and urgent engagement.

He also knew that he, personally, had to move from control (the old monopolistic culture) to autonomy and engagement, trusting his people with necessary but imperfect sets of information and empowering them with clear decision-making authority and paths to action.

How We Can Help You Turn Your Organization Into a “Change-able” Company

Creating leaders who can build “change-able” companies isn’t a one-time project – it’s an ongoing development process. The content and tools contained in The Change Kit can help people in all job positions learn how to contribute to change-ability in their company.

After all, like those elephants I mentioned at the beginning, a thundering herd that is focused and executing change is unstoppable.

Considering exiting your business after a long and successful run?

Pamela Dennis is the author of Exit Signs, a practical guide for business owners looking to sell their companies in the next five to ten years.  Her book contains a practical set of maps, directions, and warning signs to help business owners navigate their sale and leave with pride, profit, and a legacy.

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