In the infamous HBO’s Game of Thrones, queen Daenerys “Khaleesi” used to skim through kingdoms with her three invincible dragons. Now as viewers anxiously anticipate the final season, she is going to face a paramount change in the war landscape; the white walkers not only brought down one of her dragons, they turned it into a zombie-like weapon of their own. Not to mention Queen Cersei, her traditional rival for the throne, who had her army develop a giant ballista that showed promising air-defense strength against the hovering beasts.
Are you usually taken away by epic stories? How astonishing is it to realize that this kind of dramatic evolution of events does not only happen in fiction! Here is another similar yet real-life scene; on a rather seemingly ordinary business day, you rush into the boardroom for an early morning meeting called upon by your brand team. They break the awkward silence with an unpleasant opening, everyone already knows what's going on but just hates to admit it, you were all doubtful at the beginning, but for the last few days the sales of your leading product has been suffering a scary free fall. It is always this or that unexpected root cause, sometimes it’s not even competition but rather a market transition, a new regulatory legislation that made you introduce some alterations on the pack, an antitrust mandate that made you let go of a key distributor, or just a sudden shift in consumers’ needs.
Business consultants occasionally preach about “leading change”; how a leader could introduce a game-changing event, take the market by surprise, recognize and utilize new consumer trends, or lead change internally by revolutionizing processes or fighting complacency at the workplace. However, not all changes are planned, as Heraclitus said “Panta Rhei”, meaning “All things change”; change is sometimes superimposed by the marketplace, governments, social bloggers, or even by your own headquarters. Change leaders are not those just capable of turning the place upside down for new ideas, they are also supposed to anticipate change, help their teams get ready, and be able to adapt to shocking overnight breaking news with steady hands and sharp minds. So here are few thoughts for leaders to exhibit adaptability to change:
Expect the unexpected
“If anything can go wrong, it will”, a simple statement of Murphy’s law. As grave as it may sound it is frequently undermined. Very few leaders bring their teams in a room and ask “Ok, we know the usual risks, but what “else” could go wrong?” It never hurts when everything is going well to pause once in a while and ask your team good questions, simulate in your mind and more importantly simulate with your team on what new issues might arise, you could very possibly be surprised by how a new member in your team picks.
an alarming thread just because he/she is not yet overwhelmed with the overall feeling-good of existing performance. Most of crisis management techniques will still apply, like defining who deals with what first, rules of engagement...etc. yet the content and scale of preparedness may significantly vary if you only stick to traditional problems or rather equip yourself against every possible scenario.
Deal with the shock then move on
Imagine yourself in the middle of a town-hall with your employees discussing recent changes; watch out for your reactions, even the slightest limerick you casually drop in an informal break or a frown you carry on your face during your talk. You are expected to be a role model, your team members will closely monitor how you deal with the news, and whether you really mean what you preach, or just operate your auto-pilot on “change leadership protocol” while deep-inside you are as doubtful as they might be.
Then as you deal with the news, you will need to separate feelings from facts. Feelings should be expressed, it’s healthier this way. Don’t try to sugarcoat bad news, sometimes bitter taste can help people move on from denial and appreciate the scale of change. Likewise, it is equally important to defend against any alteration of facts, so ensure to make frequent statements; what is really changing, why and how best to deal with it.
There is this famous “Rule-of-seven” that I always believed in, messages stick in listeners' minds if they hear it for seven times even in different ways and different settings. Finally, as you deal with first impact, you as a leader have certainly moved on, but did everyone else? Don’t get deceived with possible faking of adaptation, behind your back in some open-space cubicles there could be few who are murmuring with negative vibes. How to recognize? Ask provocative questions, invite others to disagree with you and avoid hinting that you only favor those who are in the same state of mind like yours. It may sound like inviting trouble, but it is the only way to uncover those who may hurdle the bigger group from moving on. Then once these guys are exposed, others will shortly realize how weak their arguments are when challenged in open and transparent discussions.
There is no manual attached Make your own playbook
Let’s take the last US credit crunch as an example, most businesses were getting nowhere, and failure was inevitable to many. The retail business for example was gravely affected as families had to prioritize spending, setting aside all what could be categorized as “leisure”. Only very few companies managed to flourish during the crisis; AMAZON for instance made the best use of the circumstances by deciding to prioritize customer needs over short term profits and focused on cost-saving ideas and marketing of new low-price-products especially around holiday seasons, that they actually grew by 25% during the recession. Alternatively, LEGO had a different say yet an equally standing-out triumph, they managed to hit an all-time profit surge by simply deciding not to fight the existing troubled market, just maintaining status quo in the US market while focus on penetrating new global markets in Asia and Europe.
Change is sometimes an outside influence that no one was ready for, you had no prep, and it could be unprecedented. The tendency to reactively handle issues as you go might be tempting, yet it is still critical for you and your team to outline clear guidelines and set priorities, give ownership to your team, coach them as needed then once endorsed by everyone these guidelines should become the reference binder for everyone in the organization to follow. And remember, process is not everything, sometimes best practices of adapting to change may need the inclusion of proper knowledge and awareness for everyone, adopting new skills and allocating proper resources.
You think you have no influence? Think again!
Here is a word for middle-managers, never assume a large-scale change is a matter of concern for upper management only. There are those many times that I heard someone saying, “this is bigger than me, let’s see what the board decides” or something to that effect. It is as clear as the sun in the sky how middle managers can affect the overall morale of employees and bring all kind of intangible benefits to the cohesiveness of the organization. Just like in a Hollywood movie where an unpopular scientist could save the world from alien invasion, employees down the hierarchy ladder could add much more value than they might think.
In the last 20 years, Going-Green did not only become a public demand but also a priority for many governments including the EU (and the US during the Obama era); all companies have to invest in this field or otherwise they would be under pressure. In 2010, in an attempt to showcase that profit and environment are not an either-or choice, XEROX launched a global internal Green innovation competition; they actually saved $10.2 M through ideas contributed by ordinary employees from around the world, which was above 2% of XEROX net income that year. The morale of XEROX’s and every similar story: employees’ engagement is key for organizations to adapt to change.
Therefore, the word goes to senior management too; never undermine contributions coming upstream the line of command, smart people don’t need heavy titles next to their names in order to be eligible to see a solution that many others might have missed.
Finally... I leave you with this inspiring quote from Jimmy Dean which I believe sums up what adapting to change is all about;
“I can’t change the direction of the wind; but I can adjust my sails to always reach my destination."