Leading Change in Complex Times

Leading change - the faucet analogy

Every leader I am working with is leading change and dealing with complexity.  They know the world around them is moving fast and doing more of the same is not an option.  The process starts with an assessment of where they are now compared to where they wish to be.  We usually set a time horizon of three to five years.

Vision is the easy part of leading change

The easy part is setting the vision.  Although, most of my clients wouldn’t call this easy.  Gaining clarity and alignment on where we are heading is tough.  I say it is the easy part because making progress towards it is the real challenge.  The vision sounds and feels great, but it is only a vision.  It is critical but insufficient.

Why is making progress is so hard?  We have a clear picture of the future and everyone is aligned to it.  The biggest limiter is a straight line assumption.  We set a goal out in the future, plan our steps to achieve it and set off down the path.  Soon enough, we start to figure out this is going to be hard.  Distractions come up that hijack our attention, slowing or diverting progress.  We start taking steps and yet don’t feel any closer to the goal.  In fact we may feel further away if results don’t turn out as we expected.

Straight line thinking is a gross simplification

Our assumption that progress will be a straight line is a gross simplification.  It feels good because having a path gives us confidence we will achieve our goal.  It is a necessary starting point and we need to evolve our thinking as we start learning.  This reminds me of when I use a shower.  I start by turning the faucet a few degrees and then I test the water temperature.  It’s usually cold so I turn it some more.  It starts heating up and quickly becomes too hot.  I get it just right and sometimes the yard sprinklers come on and the pressure drops.  This causes the temperature to change again.

This simple process requires many adjustments.  I learn over time what works and it takes less adjustment, but I will always have to make some change.  This is very similar to the process of following our goals.  We start with a simple straight line assumption.  If we also assume it won’t be correct, we start with the right mindset.  One of trial and error, and welcoming unexpected results.  If we keep learning and correcting our course, we get closer to our goal.  Of course, our goal may also change as we learn more about what is ahead.

How do you think about achieving your goals?  Are you expecting to follow a straight line or are you open to the path that takes us where we need to go?