How is Covid-19 like a strategic change initiative?
If you guessed it’s because both are potentially but unpredictably lethal, sorry, no. Unlike COVID-19, change initiative lethality is quite predictable.
The right answer: Fatigue sets in.
It’s dueling clichés: It isn’t the destination that matters, it’s the journey vs This isn’t a sprint — it’s a marathon.
Having only run marathons vicariously I can’t speak for those who do. But for those called on to run one involuntarily: Put me into this situation and I’d say screw the journey. In maybe three blocks fatigue would set in, and all I’d care about is the destination.
Eight months into the pandemic, those who aren’t suffering from mask-and-social-distancing fatigue either don’t wear masks and distance themselves socially, or belong to the Hermits, Recluses, and Anchorites Club.
The rest of us are involuntary marathoners, grudgingly trudging toward our at-last-a-vaccine-that-works destination.
On a more prosaic front, which is to say we’ve arrived at this week’s subject, I’ve been involved, directly or as a consultant, in several strategic, multi-year transformation programs. I’ve helped them progress from broad-but-vague intentions, through rigorous strategy-to-action planning, to the complexities of executing multiple, parallel, interconnected multi-project initiatives.
A constant: After a while the exhilaration that comes from early successes fades and change-fatigue sets in.
If you read Bare Bones Project Management (thank you!) you probably recall the project enthusiasm curve — the sequence of emotional states project teams typically experience over the life of a project: The downslope of Unenlightened Optimism, Dawning Pessimism, and the Pit of Maximum Despair; the recovery period of Enlightened Optimism; the speed bump of Pre-completion Doldrums.
Followed by, we hope, Success.
Project managers go through the same stages as their teams, only they aren’t afforded the luxury of going through them visibly. They help themselves through the tough parts so they can help their teams get through them too.
When the subject is large-scale strategic change, though, the fatigue is both broader and deeper than with project-level change. It’s broader because with strategic change typically comes reorganizations, restructurings, and staff reductions that change the how-to-succeed rules for just about everyone.
It’s deeper because strategic change fatigue can hit an organization’s executives even harder than it hits staff-level employees. When executives enter the Pit of Maximum Despair, here are some of the symptoms:
Tactical independence: “The strategy might pay off years from now. We should be looking for opportunities that will pay off tomorrow — low-hanging fruit, to coin a phrase — even if they won’t do much to move the strategy forward,” one might say.
Many tactically independent efforts really are good ideas the company really should pursue. The problem comes from failing to reserve a portion of the company’s capital and operating budgets to pursue them.
As a general rule, companies should split their budgets into thirds — one third to pay for the strategy, the second to pay for non-strategic opportunities, and the last to, if you’ll forgive the self-indulgence, keep the joint running.
Silo-oriented planning: Silo-oriented planning takes tactical independence to the next level. Where tactical independence might lead to change efforts anywhere in the company, silo-oriented planning results in investments in my part of the company. That’s what I’m accountable for. Gimme.
How to prevent, or at a minimum reduce silo thinking? We’ve covered this topic extensively in KJR. Here’s a partial list from the archives: https://issurvivor.com/?s=silo.
A too-brief summary: Managers exhibit silo thinking when structural factors like the budgeting process and bonus program encourage it.
Defection: Whether the stress of making change happen becomes too excessive, the requirement of collaborating with peers someone neither likes or trusts starts to have too much impact on the old sphygmomanometer, or the longer hours (okay, the hours aren’t longer but there are more of them) needed for executives to get both their day jobs and change responsibilities done means redefining “personal life” to mean “my job and nothing but my job” … whatever the face-value reasons, executives start to bail out and join the competition.
Or, worse, executives who championed the change put an exaggerated account of their roles in making it happen, and of how much progress has been made on their resumes, then bail out before the whole thing falls apart.
If you’re one of the executives responsible for leading your company through a major change, be alert for the signs of change fatigue, both among your peers and within yourself. Dealing with it so it doesn’t derail the program is your job.
If you’re anyone else in the business, be alert to the same symptoms. If you spot them make plans to survive the experience.
Your first responsibility is, after all, to yourself.