Driving Change When There Isn’t A Crisis

Executing during an emergency is a rush but the bigger test comes when you must execute vital change outside of adversity. How to do it? Pressurize the system.

It’s one thing to get an organization to move off a burning platform. It is quite another to get an organization to move when there is no visible fire.

The pandemic required leaders to make significant changes at great speed. For some it was a question of survival, for others it was to seize an opportunity. In both cases, the pandemic-driven urgency was palpable. Change had to come and there were visible consequences if it didn’t.

Executing change in a crisis is quite a rush. You feel tested to your limits. In retrospect, those times may turn out to be some of your proudest moments. I doubt, however, they will be your greatest leadership challenges. If you are like most leaders, your greatest challenge will come when you must execute a vital change outside of a crisis.

When we began our work on strategic execution 20 years ago, an interesting pattern emerged. As leaders would describe their frustration executing on a critical initiative, we were surprised how often they would add this caveat, “…but we are great at executing in a crisis!” and then back up that statement with compelling, even heroic, examples.

Why are these organizations successful during a crisis? One word: Urgency! While no one wishes for an emergency, the strategic focus feels more pressing than normal day-to-day operations when you are in one.

That is not the norm.

As we move out of the pandemic into more normal circumstances, your team will again prioritize their compelling day-to-day responsibilities. These will feel more urgent than overarching strategic direction initiatives. This is true even when people believe the strategic direction to be important.

Put simply, importance doesn’t drive behavior. Urgency drives behavior.

Pressurize the system

You might be reluctant to put pressure on your teams right now, given the year we’ve just had. That’s the wrong mindset. Our “new normal” really is new. In every industry, the landscape has changed in significant ways and those changes require responses. We may be coming out of the pandemic, but the need to pivot, adapt or change isn’t slowing down. Unfortunately, the reasons to pivot, adapt or change may now be less obvious, and unfortunately feel less urgent.

That’s what leaders need to work through.

The day-to-day running of the business, what we call the “whirlwind,” has built-in urgency. It has a “this-stuff-better-get-done-or-we-are-gonna-hear-about-it” vibe. Thank heavens it does because that whirlwind energy keeps us moving. But as a leader who needs to drive change outside a crisis, that energy also becomes an obstacle.

Your ability to execute relies on directing organizational energy toward non-urgent activities. The only way to effectively do that? Make non-urgent activities feel urgent. You must pressurize your strategic focus, or it will lose to the whirlwind.

Below is a list of questions to consider:

• Is there a statement of completion for this strategic focus? Does that statement have a starting line, a finish line and a deadline? For instance, “Increase renewal rate of Tier 1 clients from 55% to 70% by Dec 31”.

• Does every team that is contributing to this strategic focus have its own statement of completion? For instance, “Decrease problem resolution time from 18 hours to 12 hours by October 31.”

• Is every team separately tracking leading measures for success? For instance, “Audit engineering backlog twice daily for escalation and resolution.”

• Does every team have its own clear scoreboard kept in real time? For instance, can the team see instantly if they are winning or losing on “Problem Resolutions” and “Backlog Audits”?

• Is every team meeting weekly to make and report on personal commitments to ensure they are winning on the scoreboard? For instance, “We commit to assisting Toni and Kris with one backlog item each by Wednesday.” Normally, I might think that helping Toni and Kris with a backlog item is a good idea, but it wouldn’t feel urgent compared to my whirlwind. It wouldn’t happen. But it is urgent now because I will be reporting this to my team.

Want to execute outside a crisis? Pressurize the system.