Leadership & General Management

How a Compelling Direction Accelerates Change – by Jan Van Veen

When trying to implement change managements often make a common mistake: Lack of clarity where the company is heading.

A couple of years ago, I spoke with the management team of an international manufacturer of medical devices. They were disappointed because their employees were not taking the initiative to educate themselves on “digital” and IT related topics and to develop the business. They knew that technology would continue to shift the market dramatically. They even had a vision: to transition from a device manufacturer to a healthcare IT service provider. Unfortunately, little happened. Employees were too busy with operational fire-fighting and the initiatives they did start had hardly any relation to the company’s future and little coherence between them.

An important reason for this failure was that their vision was not clear and concrete enough for the employees to act upon. They were still unclear about what an IT service provider even was. Which customer problems would they solve? What kind of offerings needed to be developed? What capabilities would they need to develop? And which competencies?

As business leaders, we often think that it’s obvious to our teams what changes are needed in the business and why. After all, we spend a lot of time discussing challenges, priorities and ongoing initiatives. We typically have clear financial objectives for the next few years and other qualitative objectives like “being #1 choice of the customer”.

However, many of us do not provide a clear and compelling picture of where we should be heading and why, or how our organisation should look in a couple of years. So, what is missing?

  • There are too few emotional triggers to spur our teams to be highly passionate and motivated.
  • Our teams lack insight into which initiatives make sense and how they can contribute. The quality and quantity of the initiatives is far from optimal and there is a lack of coherence between them.
  • Our staff have too many reasons to fear the downside of upcoming changes, or at least be uncertain about them. This pushes people into a defensive mode, which is destructive for change and innovation.

The solution: Direction Accelerates Change, so establish a clear and compelling direction to accelerate change

Our research clearly shows that winning and dynamic manufacturers have declared a clear and compelling direction which results in high momentum for continuous, easy change from the inside. This makes them more successful today and in the future. This direction accelerates change if it consists of:

  • A meaningful mission
  • A bold and inspiring strategic intent
  • A concrete picture of the future state of the business

Engage your people with a meaningful mission

A compelling and meaningful mission expresses passion for a cause and has the best of intentions. It declares how you will be relevant for society or your target customers and connects to heart and mind. It also gives a clear indication of how to evolve the business and why. An important benefit of a meaningful mission is that all employees become highly engaged and passionate – they are proud to be part of such an organisation.

Tesla’s original mission was to “accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable transport by bringing compelling mass market electric cars to market as soon as possible”. Although you could argue whether “sustainable energy” is unique and differentiating for Tesla, it does trigger a lot of passion and eagerness in their staff. It also gives strong direction to their strategy, initiatives and focus. It shouts that Tesla will lead the automotive industry of the future with new technology, infrastructure and products on a global scale. Tesla will be visible, dominant and disruptive.

Rally your people with a bold objective

Most leading companies have a bold objective or strategic intent which rallies their employees. They touch emotions, pride and potentially even the sense of doing right. And they drive focus on initiatives to innovate the business.

Well known examples are:

  • Amazon: Every book ever printed, in any language, all available in less than 60 seconds.
  • Google: Organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.
  • Microsoft: “A computer on every desk and in every home.”
  • Twitter: To become “the pulse of the planet”.
  • Nike: “Beat Adidas”.
  • Even though he’s not a company, John F. Kennedy: “Land a man on the moon by the end of this decade and return him safely”.

Some important characteristics of a good strategic intent are:

  • They are externally oriented,
  • They are hard to achieve, but not impossible,
  • They trigger the imagination of employees (and shareholders),
  • They define a “bigger game”, in which there is a prize to win. It will require hard work and moving away from comfort zones. Every step the team takes closer to the objective will give them a sense of pride, of belonging and will motivate them to take the next steps.

Focus and coherence with a picture of future state

Too often our vision of how the future business will look is too high level and vague for most of our staff. They remain unclear about where the company is heading. How will it look in 5 years? Which clients will they be targeting? What are those customers’ needs? What kind of solutions will they be offering? How will they fit in, if at all?

Imagine the amount of momentum for ongoing change and innovation your teams could have, if they all shared the same concrete picture of the company’s future. Including:

  • The key industry trends, such as technology, impact on clients, the changing power of competitors, and potential new entrants.
  • Changing needs of clients and other market segments that have not yet been served.
  • Shifts in key stakeholders, of the client organisations they’ll be working with.
  • Change of value propositions and offerings.
  • Change of organisational capabilities and people competencies.
  • Change of required technology.

Benefits

Winning companies understand that direction accelerates change. They benefit by having a clear and compelling direction in place. They have created the foundation for proud, engaged and committed employees who want to walk the extra mile, get out of their comfort zone and make innovation happen.

Their employees develop the right initiatives and understand the initiatives of others. This is crucial for coherency and alignment in the organisation without needing to dictate ideas and decisions from the top.

And finally, their employees have much less fear and uncertainty about the personal impact on them of upcoming changes, and therefore are much more open to drive change.

The Essence

If you assume this is about better telling your staff what to do and getting them on board, you have already missed the point:
It is about creating a constructive and forward-thinking environment where your staff take the right initiatives and bring them to practice. Changes come from the ‘bottom-up’. I believe this is the power of combining business innovation on one hand, and talent development and empowerment on the other.

 

Jan van Veen helps technology and manufacturing companies increase momentum for a continuous and quicker adaptation to change. He is founder of moreMomentum, an international consultancy based in the Netherlands.

 

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