Scrambling to respond to change

The question of the week is: ‘I’m dealing with rapidly shifting needs and priorities, while working with limited resources.  The traditional change management approaches don’t seem to recognise this.  What are the must do things I need to support my team in this situation?’

I got the impression from this manager that she’s in a constant scrambling to respond to changing situations – rather like being in a small ship at sea in a storm with critical equipment failing, and the crew flagging under pressure.

This thought led me to look at what sailors do in that situation and ask can we take any lessons from them?  First, I looked at Yachting World’s piece ‘15 things you should know when planning an Atlantic crossing’, it says ‘In most cases, the crossing is the culmination of years of planning and preparation’, this is exactly what traditional change management seeks to do – plan the change, then deliver the change, then embed the change.  Or as Prosci says Prepare for Change, Manage Change, Reinforce Change.

This is precisely what the questioner says is not workable in her situation – she has no time for planning and she is in a continuously turbulent environment where she has to deliver change at a moment’s notice, and then deliver the next change without any embedding of previous change.   So, drawing on that article didn’t work too well.  Except for one point:

‘A smart crossing is all about consistent speed, 24 hours a day. The key is not to have downtime.’  Well I agree change is all about consistent speed, but not with the point about no downtime. Downtime for people in changing situations is critical to give space for review and reflection.  Read this article Resilience Is About How You Recharge, Not How You Endure.

However, I was already immersed in Yachting World, and in danger, of drifting aimlessly through its blogs, articles and offers when I spotted info on what can go wrong crossing the Atlantic: ‘We issued the 290 yachts sailing in the 2016 ARC and ARC+, transatlantic rallies with a survey to detail their breakages and solutions’.

It has some interesting stats: ‘The first thing you notice from the results is that there were few empty columns for yachts without problems. In total, 167 yachts, or nearly 60 per cent of the fleet, had a breakage.’   Taking an organisational equivalent to ‘breakage’ e.g. relationships breaking down, equipment failures, wrong decisions, financial loss, sudden context shifts, risk aversion, or any of the myriad things that happen that managers have to deal with in our VUCA world and 60% seems like quite a low number.

Reading on, I found many useful ideas to help the questioner:

‘Problems are of course to be expected, but breakages can spoil voyages. One of the best ways to avoid them is to learn from others’ mistakes.’   On dry land, Torben Rick has a list of 20 change management mistakes we can learn from. Several of them are to do with lack of employee involvement – a mistake I see being made over and over again.

‘The most common casualties were ripped sails and breakages caused by chafe – which, going on past feedback, is nothing new.’   I checked the work ‘chafe’ and found that ‘Chafing is irritation or damage caused by friction – friction is resistance caused by rubbing.  Chafing worsens with excessive pressure.’   Isn’t ‘caused by chafe’ a terrific phrase to describe the way people feel in changing situations – irritable, resistant to pressure, torn or damaged?  Managers who are alert to signs of chafe in their workforce can take some steps to curb it.

‘Thirteen yachts had batten problems or breakages (mainly from flogging in light winds) … The simple message coming from the majority of these cases is to carry spares!’  I hope there’s not too much organisational equivalent of ‘flogging in light winds’ but there’s a warning there to not drive employees too hard in business as usual work – aim for good enough, so there’s spare goodwill and capacity/energy for dealing with the ongoing changes.

‘There were multiple failures to preventers, blocks, and furling lines … The trend here showed a lack of routine maintenance’.  I stopped to think on this one.  There are multiple things in office life that fail because of lack of routine maintenance – photocopiers, staplers without staples, lifts, people unthanked, team spirit, etc.  Community Toolbox has a very good resource on Day-to-Day Maintenance of an Organization together with a checklist.  Making sure the routine maintenance is in place will help in turbulence.

‘The gooseneck bolt broke “Nothing alarming or special happened during that moment or just before. The grinding and wear and tear had somehow loosened the nut on the bolt and then the bolt dropped off its position. … the biggest take-home lesson is “to inspect critical points more often.”  Another good point for managers in stressful times – identify the critical points and keep an eye on them.’   Each fast-paced change context is likely to have different critical points for maintaining delivery, but typically critical points are: enough skilled people (have you got cover if people move on/get sick?), few but sufficiently good metrics to provide actionable info, frequent/truthful communication that builds trust and involvement.  Project Laneways offers a course in Rapid Agile Change Management that appears covers the typical critical points. (Only available in Australia?).

‘Both the gooseneck and vang mast fittings broke aboard the 72ft Southern Wind Far II Kind. Skipper Will Glenn said in hindsight they should have checked that the riggers did what was asked of them properly – and that they should have trialled the boat in stronger winds.’ Another good point for managers – have you checked people’s capacity to learn and change, are you progressively trying out and developing their skills to deal with more complex or even faster-paced change, and trying these skills out?  There are five suggested ways for doing this in the blog 5 Ways Leaders Strengthen And Prepare Their Teams For Change.

‘What would you do if hardware, hatches or fittings ripped out of the deck or rig? When the mainsheet track car broke on Harmony 38 Oginev, the crew was quick to jury rig solutions.’  (Jury-rig = makeshift repairs made with only the tools and materials at hand). Most of us have to be able to find ingenious solutions to problems we face in everyday organisational life with no extra or special resources to do so, often they are called ‘work-arounds’.  The HBR Working Paper,  ‘Fostering Organizational Learning: The Impact of Work Design on Workarounds, Errors, and Speaking Up About Internal Supply Chain Problems’ has ideas on how to develop both work-around skills and the skills/designs for having to work-around in the first place.   (There are some interesting examples of community action jury rigging here)

Thanks to Yachting World I now have 8 points that could help the manager with ongoing change turbulence, summarising these:

  1. Allow reflection and review time – it’s worth the investment
  2. Learn from other’s mistakes – in particular make sure you involve your workforce in the change decisions/work
  3. Do routine maintenance
  4. Be alert to signs of chafe in your workforce
  5. Aim for good enough
  6. Inspect critical points often
  7. Develop people’s capacity to learn and change
  8. Develop both work-around/jury-rigging skills (and the skills/designs for not having to do work-arounds in the first place).

Looking at the list, it’s more about ensuring you get the context for change right.  Then, even though it may not be all plain sailing, at least you will have the ability to handle what comes up.

What advice would you give the manager who doesn’t have time to plan change but just has to do it?  Let me know.

Image: Whitbread Round the World Race