Stakeholders in a community or organization hold distinct perspectives on the definition of success, on what is necessary to achieve desired outcomes and whether change is necessary for improvement. Some may vigorously defend the status quo or wax nostalgic about a “golden age”. Regardless of where you stand on the need for change, outside forces tend to control and dictate the urgency. Staying the course is rarely a viable option for maintaining relevance or finding new value for constituents.
When change is overdue, but the need for change is unclear to stakeholders, immediate action is required. If perceptions don’t align with reality, an awakening will be necessary to build a shared understanding. Different than a visioning process, this involves analyzing your current reality through multiple perspectives, confronting the facts, and accepting what it will mean for the organization or community if nothing changes. This degree of reflective practice isn’t achieved without visionary leadership.
Leading change hinges on situational awareness, courageous and collaborative decision-making, and the ability to maintain clarity of purpose. What is best may not be popular. What is necessary may seem unattainable, dangerous, or foolish to pursue. Critics may relish the opportunity to tell you why the initiative will fail. External forces often impose a timeline for action that runs counter to what the majority of stakeholders feel is appropriate. Under those conditions, courageous and timely action is necessary to achieve desired outcomes. This may require expediting a detailed initiative and developing a communication plan to maintain clarity about the purpose of the change and the desired destination.
When considering the change process, I often imagine the difficulty of navigating a large ocean-going vessel through difficult waters or narrow passages. Such a ship can change course when necessary, but not without forethought, coordinated efforts of the crew, and timely execution. At the helm of such a large ship, situational awareness and action orientation are essential. Faced with the need to change, there are several different approaches that organizations or communities may choose to pursue. Below are just a few that come to mind.
Stakeholders may opt to stay the course, believing they are headed in the right direction despite the weather forecast or GPS reading. The operating assumption is that a breakthrough is imminent. Calm waters and sunny skies can confirm a bias for staying the course. This feels comfortable and has proven safe thus far. However, if course correction is necessary and you fail to act, you run the risk of running aground or arriving at an undesirable location.
Depending on your context, a modest directional adjustment may prevent you from drifting off course and lead to continuous improvement over a period of time. This can be a great long-term strategy if the community or organization is stable or healthy and conditions remain predictable. However, in the world of the 21st century this isn’t how most of us can afford to navigate anymore.
INDECISIONThe cost of inaction can prove catastrophic when facing an unpredictable threat or challenge. Delayed action, whether due to perceptual differences among stakeholders, or a willful decision to ignore available data, can hasten critical failure. None of us would admit to planning or hoping for failure, but delayed action or decision-making often bring about the same result.
INQUIRY-BASEDA preferred course of action while navigating difficult waters is to apply a PDSA (plan-do-study-act) philosophy of inquiry within a collaborative context. This approach requires a high degree of communication, development of a shared purpose, frequent progress monitoring and an action orientation. This degree of collaboration is a lot of work, but there are no shortcuts to reaching desired outcomes and maintaining relevance.
Regardless of activity, your organizational or community status is bound to change. Doing nothing and waiting for conditions to improve is not a strategy worth risking. The best course of action is to collectively decide upon the destination, figure out what it will take to get there, remind people what is at stake and carefully measure progress on the journey. Anchors aweigh and good luck!