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How to Manage the Waves of Change

Managing change today is a lot like surfing. Just like waves, change never stops. No two waves are exactly alike, but there are patterns. Waves form, roll, peak and break. Often, the difference between catching the wave and missing it completely—a fate worse than a wipeout—is how well you understand the characteristics of that particular wave as it forms.

Like change, waves can feel pretty scary. Finding yourself on the wrong side of a wave is no fun. Getting on the right side of that same wave, however, is incredible—exhilarating, enlivening and empowering. The same is true when leading a company through a major change: If you harness the wave the right way, change can become a source of competitive advantage—energizing, stimulating and even fun.

To see the opportunity in the waves of change, it is helpful to put them into context. John Seely Brown, former chief scientist of Xerox Corporation and director of its Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), has shown that the frequency of change and the degree of interdependence we experience today are both new. Previously, periods of dramatic change—such as the introduction of the steam engine, the telegraph or even cars—were followed by periods of relative stability. According to Brown’s work, the periods of stability we’d grown accustomed to were roughly 50–70 years long. In the last 20 years or so, however, new technologies have upended and destabilized that model. Today there are more ways the world can change, and, because we are increasingly interconnected, that change can spread faster. 

Riding waves of unending change requires new approaches. Corporate leaders who thrive in this environment do three things that experienced surfers have also mastered:

  • They watch for oncoming waves and get into position.
  • They make sure they have the right setup in place to succeed.
  • They commit and move forward.

These steps help avoid the pounding some waves seem certain to bring. They help deliver better results for the business, better experiences for customers and more growth for employees. 

Scan the horizon and get in position 

Most corporate leaders spend the majority of their time in execution mode and not enough time looking out for and planning to catch the next wave of change. When talking about how they divide their time between three critical roles—designing strategy, translating what matters to their teams and executing specific operational tasks—leaders invariably lament the lack of sufficient time to evaluate the market and adjust their strategy accordingly.

Surfers do just the opposite. They spend more than 80% of their time in the water watching for the waves they want to catch and adjusting their position in order to be ready when the right wave arrives. They spend less than 10% of it actually surfing.

Timing and readiness are critical, and they are two things that leaders can influence. Recently, an industrial company recognized this while transforming its operating model. The company wanted to get to market faster by limiting time-intensive customization. At an early stage in the design of the new operating model, the team tested some options with a major customer. The initial feedback was positive, but finding the right time to execute the change could be tricky. The challenge was to balance timing, which in this case the company couldn’t fully control, and their own readiness, which they could. “We need to run it when it fits the customer’s buying cycle and when our team knows what to do,” the project leader said. Wait too long, and he knew they would risk losing momentum and energy, cause customer frustration and possibly miss the opportunity to make the change.

So the project leader focused on looking to the horizon and watching for the next opportunity to arise, and at the same time helped his team prepare. They identified key risks and plans to mitigate them. They brought in people from different divisions so they would be in a position to deliver when their first opening came.

Ensure you have the right setup

Different waves call for different boards. Skilled surfers maintain a quiver of boards: a six-foot-long fish for chest-high waves, a nine-foot longboard for knee-high waves and a midsize pintail for when it’s really pumping. For leaders in the midst of a change, it’s easy to skip past a crucial step: ensuring the right setup is in place to successfully catch and navigate a wave. That’s a mistake. Key questions include: Does your team have the right mindset, knowledge and skills? Do you have the right technology and tools?

Even if you don’t have the appropriate setup initially, it’s possible to address that and quickly turn things around, as the recent experience of one large technology company reflects. The company had completed an acquisition and planned to grow revenue using its newly acquired capabilities. But the sales team that came over with the acquisition didn’t have the knowledge, consulting skills, or imagination to engage and inspire their customers to buy and deploy new solutions. The setup was off. Sales fell behind expectations. Recognizing the problem, company leadership identified the need to embed learning agility in the sales organization. They saw first-line sales managers as critical to fixing the issue, so executives invested in teaching these managers how to coach the front line and gather data from the field that could then be used to accelerate sales reps’ training and increase adoption of the new offerings by key accounts.

Commit and go

When you first start surfing, it takes time to get the hang of it. Most of the progress comes when you are in the water with someone experienced who can provide in-the-moment coaching. When first learning to catch a wave, you are told to get into position, wait until you feel the back of the board lift just a bit and then paddle like mad. When you think you’ve paddled enough, take six more strokes. The lesson is that you don’t catch waves by pursuing them with an indifferent approach. You commit to that wave, paddle hard and get ready to enjoy the ride.

Often in a corporate change effort, leaders undercut the work by operating as if things haven’t really changed. This imperils commitment and trust, two traits that enable high performance in such transformations.

Leaders are leaders not because they have titles, budgets and organizations. Leaders are leaders because they have followers. Teams need to see their leaders commit and go when the waves are right. Successful corporate surfers use the waves of change as a source of energy and inspiration for the organization, and as a catalyst to create disruptive business models and innovation. An organization’s ability to change at pace and at scale ties directly to delivering superior results: Bain & Company research has found that the best change organizations are two times as likely to achieve their ambition, and three times as likely to sustain it.

It’s inevitable that you’ll wipe out sometimes. You can’t learn to ride the waves until you get past your fear of wiping out. Every session on the water is marked by some success and some failure. So in a world where the waves of change are piling up on the horizon, it’s critical that leaders embrace both the joys and challenges that come with learning to ride them.

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Change Management Insights

Change management has been around for decades, but more than 70% of change efforts fail. Bain’s Results Delivery® insights help companies to predict, measure and manage risk, starting on day one.

Pete Gerend is an expert vice president based in Bain & Company’s Washington, DC, office. David Michels is a partner in Bain’s Zurich office and global leader of the firm’s Results Delivery® practice.

Results Delivery® is a registered trademark of Bain & Company, Inc.

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