“It is not the strongest or the most intelligent who will survive, but those who can best manage change.” – Charles Darwin
Imagine you’re the coach for an NFL football team and your goal is to score a touchdown. As a coach, it would be unimaginable to think your team would be successful by simply passing, running a straight line, and ultimately scoring. Rather, the journey from kickoff to touchdown requires adaptability—it requires your team to assess and respond to threats, capitalize on what’s working, and pull it all together to reach the endzone.
In comparison, as a business leader kicking off a transformation process, you have a defined end goal but you don’t know exactly how many twists and turns the journey will take. It’s no secret that transformation efforts are difficult; in fact, many fail because companies were unable to adapt during the transformation.1 As a leader, you must help your teams assess and respond to threats, capitalize on what’s working, and pivot along the way to reach the end goal.
To support our clients’ change efforts, we place a heavy emphasis on adaptability. Transformational adaptability is intentional: it emphasizes impact over process, and maintains focus on the overall goal. Shifts in processes, approaches, and ownership may be necessary, and a successful pivot is often the driver for overall success.
In this article, we’ll outline four key factors that can help leaders identify when a pivot is necessary. Each one plays an important role in determining the best path forward. For best results, leaders should tap into all four:
- Question previous assumptions. While assumptions play a helpful role initially—especially where limited data exists—leaders should revisit them periodically to check their validity. Challenging your initial assumptions can help you recognize the need to pivot. Transformation riding on the back of ill-defined goals and misplaced assumptions is likely to fail. As you re-validate previous assumptions throughout the transformation process, you’ll notice potential pivot points.
- Track and measure success. As you track objective measures throughout the process, you’ll be able to see clearly where your transformation is working . . . and where your blind spots have been. Tracking is critical to recalibration and course correction along the way to your end goal. We recommend that leaders prioritize objective measurements over anecdotal or subjective measurements. By collecting and analyzing objective data, leaders can confidently rely on insights that address the fundamental impact.
- Fail fast; fail smart. No transformation plan is perfect from the beginning, and failing quickly enables you to identify early weaknesses, harness new opportunities, and create long-term success. To pivot successfully, allow failures to correct the course of the transformation. In John Kotter’s 8 steps to transformation, he emphasizes empowering others to act on the vision, and planning for and creating short-term wins. 2 Inherent in both values is this fact: failures will occur. We advise leaders to build a culture where trying and failing is consistently preferred over decision paralysis. Rather than sticking with a misguided plan, leaders who accept early failures empower their teams to shift course and achieve a win.
- Maintain the vision. Regardless of which direction a pivot may lead your organization, be sure to maintain confidence in your initial end goal. As you are meeting new challenges brought on by external and internal factors that you have never faced before, you can tap into your guiding vision and trust it. While you may have initial alignment from senior leadership, you’ll have to navigate company structure and politics that can impede pivoting during the transformation. Don’t lose sight of the vision. Remind your teams and higher-ups that pivoting is natural and necessary in accomplishing the end goal.
Transformation is a difficult process, but you can increase the probability of success by pivoting when necessary. By questioning assumptions, tracking success, and recalibrating failures, leaders can help their teams pivot throughout the transformation trajectory to achieve the ultimate goal.
1 Bossidy L., Charan, R., Execution: The Discipline of Getting Things Done. New York: Currency, 2002.
2 Kotter, J. “Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail.” Harvard Business Review: Jan. 2007. Accessed May 2018: https://hbr.org/2007/01/leading-change-why-transformation-efforts-fail.