Change Is the New Superpower

Change Is the New Superpower

Today, change is continuous and accelerating, and building up your company's ability to change is critical.

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Change Is the New Superpower

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Exercise one time, and you will get benefits. Exercise daily, enough to build your muscle mass, and your metabolism actually increases. Similarly, run a business change program once and you may reap short-term benefit. Do it repeatedly, with purpose, and your organization’s ongoing ability to change will jump.

In today’s business environment, change is the new superpower. Gone are the days of thinking of change as a project with a defined start and finish, a particular disruption to get through and then go back to normal. Now change is continuous, and it is accelerating. In a recent Harvard Business Review study, over 90% of surveyed executives say they grapple with increasing volatility in their markets, and yet only about a fifth believe they understand the best ways to achieve agility and innovation. Volatility is now the norm across virtually all industries, and the implications are profound. The winners will be those who can reliably and repeatedly change, at pace and at scale.

Just like regular physical training, upping your company’s metabolic rate for change is easier said than done. I might be able to force myself to get out running on any particular morning, but to do so regularly and with sufficient discipline to be able to run in a marathon, for example, requires profound behavior change and a system of enablers. In a recent Forbes Insights report done with the Project Management Institute, 94% of survey respondents said they face significant challenges creating a culture of change. Why? The top three challenges cited were, first, that employees see change as a threat to their jobs, second, approaching digital transformation as a technology and not a people issue, and, third, the assumption that the culture already promotes constant change.

Forward-thinking executives are consciously working to overcome these obstacles and boost their organization’s metabolic rate. The CEO of a multibillion dollar pharmaceutical company recently shared with me his plan to stimulate collaboration, trust and creativity across his organization—in essence, to accelerate its speed and ability to change. An important first step was reorienting the company’s operating model to reflect the new reality of a more dynamic market. This has included a fundamental reshuffling of the roles of the entire leadership team to hew to the “two-hat” leadership principle, which is to play both a functional—or “vertical”—role and an overall leadership—or “transversal”—role. He reduced by more than half the number of top executives—those on the executive committee plus his direct reports—in many cases by creating more complex roles that force executives to reflect more and look outside of their siloes. At the executive committee level, for example, he now has one person overseeing a therapeutic area globally and in a particular geographic region as well. Before, those were two separate jobs.

Does this accelerate innovation and speed? I asked. He argued, yes. Putting people into new and different situations is producing new and different behaviors and making teamwork easier, he said. This has led to a much faster and more efficient dynamic. The number of meetings has dropped by approximately 30%, the number of people attending them is down roughly 30%, and they take 30% less time. This is possible because the rules of engagement have changed, and the fabric of trust among these leaders has strengthened. The CEO is shifting the mindset from “I” to “We,” and this is producing profound changes. Nobody forced him to make these moves, but he understands that increasing his organization’s metabolic rate, its ability to change, will accelerate results for customers, employees, shareholders and society at large. He has recognized that change is the new business superpower.

As daily exercise builds muscle, and that muscle boosts metabolism, so on-the-job reinforcement builds the capacity for sustained change. Recently financial firm Capital One began a program to build its capacity for change. Early in their work, executives focused on small but visible change initiatives. Those early efforts transferred knowledge and skill to the line managers, spreading the capacity for change. The lessons learned were then carried forward into subsequent activities through postings on the change management portal, learning events among managers and change consultants, and, perhaps most important, conversations among the managers working with one another to solve change problems. Over time, as the company tackled more issues, this virtuous circle helped Capital One’s change capability become more and more sophisticated.

Organizations can only increase their change capacity by experiencing and leading through all types of change over and over again, continually learning and building muscle. Business leaders are wise to focus not just on getting through a particular project or program, but rather on building their organization’s metabolism for change at pace and at scale. In today’s increasingly dynamic and fast-moving market, your company’s metabolism for change can be its most formidable superpower.

David Michels is a partner and director in Bain’s Zurich office and the leader of the firm’s global Results Delivery® practice.


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