Change while times are good

I’ve fallen and I can’t get up

Many of my American readers will have seen the commercial with an older woman who has fallen in the bathroom and needs help. “I’ve fallen, and I can’t get up,” she calls out. Luckily, she has Life Alert, a device that allows customers to, in the event of an emergency, simply press a button on a small pendant and call for help. The commercial’s premise is that because this woman had thought about her weaknesses BEFORE she had the fall, she was able to be rescued and live to tell her story.

When do most businesses try to change, or shift something up? (A new revenue stream, new reporting structures, reduction in headcount, etc.) Usually — not always, but definitely the majority of the time — change management efforts come when the company is doing poorly. When things have fallen and they can’t get up! This is logical. Usually change is a reaction to less-than-expected performance, or the belief that the company needs to be shaken up to get back on track.

I came across this thought from Trevor Edwards, the President of NIKE Brand, recently. It speaks to the same idea:

“Most change is driven by poor performance, but rather than waiting for a crisis — consider disrupting the status quo when the numbers are strong. Trying to revamp your business in a crisis can lead to bad decisions. Your thought process will be clearer when things are going well.”

I couldn’t agree more. I also think it applies to both personal and professional life.

Making changes in your personal life

Personally, a lot of people try to make changes when they feel they are at rock bottom. They’ve lost a job, a relationship has ended, a family member or friend dies suddenly, and emotions send them grasping for change. But when you make a change at that point, you’re entirely reacting to the most recent negative event. If you got fired for a specific performance issue, you may over-focus on correcting that performance issue as you look for new jobs. But you may have been great at that aspect of a job; the evaluation may have been subjective, or you may have really been terminated to help the company meet a growth target. Likewise, running away from a job, or any other relationship, because things are bad can lead to a disastrous “boomerang” effect. You may hate the new [fill in the blank] more than the former.

Negativity reduces context. That’s a good reason to consider personal improvements when you’re already feeling good about life. It will give you more perspective.

Applying this to companies

Change in good timesOn the professional front, I use the term “tour of duty” a lot. It’s a different way of thinking about the standard employment contract. Basically, you are bringing people in for specific jobs. They do those jobs and they either roll off or they transition onto another team/project. Josh Bersin, a people development thought leader, calls this a “team of teams” approach. You see it commonly in the military and in the consulting industry, and it’s becoming more commonplace elsewhere.

It makes sense because oftentimes, job roles are very unclear. They’re clear at first — the hiring was a response to an immediate need of a hiring manager — but after that need becomes less of a priority, the person hired is still on the books. Sometimes, they can become a 8-to-10-year employee and not have a clear role for much of that time. This limits flexibility of the organization. You can’t do strategic pivots, and you can’t do effective change management, if you have a lot of people locked into intractable, potentially unnecessary roles.

The elephant in the room here is terminations. When we talk about companies changing in the bad times instead of the good times, usually the main way that happens is terminations. These happen for a variety of reasons: companies trying to clear money to prove growth, trying to deal with a performance issue that’s been lingering, or a host of other financial reasons.

Regardless of why the company is embarking on terminations, it’s almost always a bad play. Research has shown layoffs don’t have short or long-term benefits. They’re simply just a reaction to a bad revenue cycle.

If you consider the approach of “change while times are good” and you structure your hiring more as “tour of duty,” I think a lot of these issues can be alleviated. Sadly, the nature of most companies these days isn’t to reward employee longevity. So from an employee side, loyalty has been declining for years as people think they may be better off thinking as independent contractors moving from one project to the next.

Consider the example of Jason Fried, the CEO of Basecamp. They were doing super well in 2014, onboarding 100s of new clients every day. He still decided to radically shift the company and its reporting structures, saying at the time:

“Change is great – as long as it’s not forced change. Forced change is often resented change. When you’re forced to change because things aren’t going well, you’re often rushed and unhappy. When you decide to change when things are going great, you can do it on your own schedule and your own way. That’s what we decided to do – we decided to make this change right now while business has never been better.”

Amen, sir.

Change in good timesTop 3 reasons to change while times are good

Busy executives, especially those who are driving innovation in the digital economy, will continue to struggle with organizational change in the midst of transformation change. BUt the fact is, they are completely interdependent. You cannot lead a major business transformation without a people transformation and vice versa.  So, constantly looking at your organization and looking for ways to restructure, rethink, reduce, and redeploy will make you more successful.

In short, there are three major benefits to changing while times are good:

  • Priority of focus: The changes occur on your time/schedule, as opposed to a rushed process to meet certain accounting goals.
  • Sensitive to employees: Changing in boom periods allows for thoughtful change that’s ultimately considerate of individual impact.
  • Smarter: When you change in a good cycle, the decisions will be better and rooted in a clearer thought process.

I know this isn’t always possible, and sometimes in the good periods you just want to ride the train of revenue growth and not think about what can be changed, but I hope the above is a compelling context for why your best quarters are exactly the time to shake things up.

Be well. Lead On.

Adam Stanley - Connections blog - Thinking like a disruptor

Adam L. Stanley Connections Blog

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