Leadership in a chaotic, complex and changing world

Today’s business leaders are facing an unprecedented level and pace of change, with many of the challenges encountered being quite different in their systemic nature from those in the past.

Most businesses are struggling with potential disruptors, including digital transformation, increasing global competition and changing customer expectations.

This is why there is now a dawning realisation amongst forward-thinking leaders that traditional methods and models of leadership are inadequate for the disruptive business environment we now face.

Which means that a new way of leading is needed for this new context.

Yet, while businesses need leaders to be skilled at leading change, the reality is that most have no training or experience of what it takes to lead change confidently and successfully.

Six vital elements for successful change

We all know that change is a phenomenon that has and will always exist. And every change gives rise to events that can either be problems or opportunities.

However, despite this knowledge, the biggest mistake that leaders make is to waste time trying to stop, avoid or slow change down, only to end up being crushed by it.

For almost three decades I have helped business owners and senior leaders to successfully lead change by skilfully solving problems and making consistently great decisions when facing rapid, disruptive, unpredictable change.

Based on this experience I have identified six vital areas of focus for confidently leading a business, department or team through change.

Below is a brief explanation of each of the six areas and what you, as a change leader, need to do at each stage:

ANALYSE

No business ever achieved peak performance without facing and overcoming problems. The struggle for success IS a struggle with problems. And as I said earlier, problems are caused by change and change is inevitable.

But there are problems… and then there are problems! Some problems threaten your very survival, while others can bring amazing opportunities.

So, the secret of success is in understanding which categories your problems fall into and knowing the right approach for solving them.

Analyse is about stepping back from the day-to-day reacting and fire fighting, so that you can gain absolute clarity about which problems to tackle, in what order and how.

The best way to do this is to bring together people from different levels of the business to identify all of the problems you are facing. This way, you will have a comprehensive, business-specific list of the issue you need to address and that will help to bring focus and clarity to your change strategy.

AIM

Once you have your comprehensive list of your business-specific problems, you may want to take immediate action to solve these problems, but this is precisely where most change efforts fail!

Because something is missing from the equation – an understanding of Business Lifecycle Stages and how this directly affects the capacity of the business to solve the problems you have identified.

Aim is all about aiming to be at your peak which is the lifecycle stage called PRIME.

You can find out how near or far away you are from PRIME by understanding whether the problems you face are normal or abnormal problems that impede your success. Understanding this means you focus your energies and efforts in the right place so that you are actions deliver the biggest results.

ASSIGN

Another mistake that many leaders make is to take a “one size fits all” approach to problem solving. They either try to do it all by themselves or completely delegate responsibility.

Here are two tried and tested options that have been proven to work over and over again.

Firstly, if the problem is urgent and needs immediate attention and action. You must Assign the responsibility for solving this to one person.

But… this does not have to be you – just because you are the leader. This can be anyone in the business that has the capacity and capability to effectively solve the problem.

Secondly, if the problem is not urgent and there is time for creative thinking and exploring options, then you must Assign the problem to a team.

A team that is brought together from different levels and areas of the business AND they must have authority to make decisions about the best way to solve the problem.

This approach means that, as a leader, you are not under constant pressure of being the person to solve every problem and it is a great opportunity for others in the business to apply their knowledge, skills and expertise effectively.

ALIGN

The fourth area to focus on is Align.

Treating change as a one-off project that has no connection to the business strategy or day-to-day operations is a recipe for disaster because change impacts every area of your business and it is impossible to make or implement the right decisions if your strategies are not aligned.

Alignment is achieved by bringing together strategic, operational and change leadership roles to make and implement decisions.

This way you are operating in a holistic, big picture way and it frees up time, energy and resources to focus on grasping the new opportunities that also come with change.

 ARRANGE

The penultimate area of focus is Arrange.

It is important not to rush into changing the organisational structure too early in your change journey, resulting in people feeling insecure and frustrated, leading to a negative culture, conflict and poor performance.  This is not the way to make best use of people’s skills and talents.

It may sound paradoxical, but structure should be one of the last things you tackle when faced with change for two reasons:

Firstly, you cannot decide on structure before you know what problems you need to solve.

Secondly, to develop and sustain peak performance during change, you need to create a flexible and innovative environment for people to flourish in i.e. having a positive organisational culture.

In the words of Peter Drucker:

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast, operational excellence for lunch and everything else for dinner.”

 ADAPT

And the sixth area of focus is Adapt. In reality this is the bridge back to Analyse, the first area of focus in successful change leadership, because change is never a never-ending cycle.

As I said earlier, no business ever succeeded without continually and consistently addressing the problems caused by change.

As change creates more change and more problems, your role as a leader is to stay ahead of and anticipate change. You do this by repeating the Analyse stage of the change process.

The good news is that once you have mastered these elements, you will always have the tools you need to meet any new challenges that arise and, even better, you will progressively find that you will become quicker and more effective at applying this knowledge, which means that you will free up time, energy and resources in your team and the business to focus on development, growth and innovation.

Not only will this give you a competitive advantage, but it will also give you the tools you need to confidently and consistently succeed when leading change, particularly in a complex, chaotic and changing world.

Barbara Armstrong OBE
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Barbara Armstrong OBE

Barbara helps business owners and senior leaders to confidently and successfully lead change. As a business consultant, coach, facilitator and speaker, she has a reputation for seeking out and encouraging “next practice” for business success. Specialising in business growth, transformational change, innovation and leadership excellence, Barbara has experience of designing, developing and delivering customised solutions for private, public sector and not-for-profit organisations. With a multi-discipline skill set in business and people development, she is committed to promoting and strengthening complementary leadership built on organisational values that ensure synergy with culture, business objectives and operational processes.