Over the weekend I witnessed an enormous flock of starlings in an undulating swarm constantly changing direction and formation but always maintaining their speed and close formation. It reminded me of a key challenge for leaders today: How to get an organization to adapt and move together with the changing environment. Of course entrenched bureaucracies and change-resistant cultures make this particularly difficult, but even leaders of smaller companies of 100-500 employees in fast-moving technological or highly competitive industries find such adaptability difficult.
We’ve all seen flocks of birds and schools of fish instantly change directions together. Scientists have found that these groups are responding not to leaders, but to the environment and especially to each other using a few simple rules such as collision avoidance, velocity matching, and cohesion.
So what can we learn for increasing the speed and adaptability of business organizations? The key is to focus on just a few simple rules of adaptability rather than a complex set of policies and instuctions.
I’ll provide more in my monthly email this week, but in the meantime, you might want to take a look at this amazing three-minute video showing masses of starlings performing phenomenal agility and mass change. Click here for the video
Most attempts at organization change fail.
Even if the change is eventually successful, the cost is often far higher than necessary. Those costs include complaints from people who feel threatened, the damage to trust from those who were surprised or blindsided, the need to resolve conflicting priorities, lost opportunities from miscommunication, and others.
In my 30 years of helping organizations, the most important part of change happens upfront, before the change is implemented. And it involves getting the relatively few people in key positions to agree to the change, to understand how the change serves their self-interest, and to be able to effectively sponsor the change both publicly and privately. To get change right, take the time upfront to prepare for success.
© Bob Legge 2014 All rights reserved
General Motors continues to have problems–the kinds of problems going through a bankruptcy instead of being bailed-out might well have corrected. GM’s stock has fallen to below the post bankruptcy initial public offering price primarily because the entrenched behaviors, bad habits, unclear responsibilities, and lack of accountability pull it inexorably down, the same way they did in the past. GM’s CEO Mary Barra, in a Wall Street Journal article last week, clearly stated that things must change, and people need to be enthused about making it happen, instead of feeling like they’ve spent another day climbing “Mt. Stupid.” Changing a company’s culture and management–and that’s really what I’m talking about here–begins at the top with a clear image of what the company needs to accomplish, the behaviors required to achieve it, and a management team dedicated to making it happen.