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Win the Leadership Marathon

Win the Leadership Marathon

How top organizations are increasing their capacity for change.

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Win the Leadership Marathon
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This article originally appeared on Forbes.com (subscription may be required).

Exercise once, and calories burn once. Exercise regularly, and your metabolic capacity—or your VO2 max, your body's ability to take in oxygen and circulate it into the blood of working muscles—can actually increase. VO2 max is a pretty good barometer of one’s cardiovascular fitness level. For mere mortals like me, a normal VO2 max is about 40 to 45. World-class cyclists, runners, and cross-country skiers can register numbers north of 80.

There’s a parallel in business today. Most organizations deal with change as it comes, as best they can, like playing the whack-a-mole game at the amusement park. A challenge pops up; you hit it back down and move on, only to have another pop up even faster. Successfully manage through one organizational change, and you can check that initiative off the list as completed … at least until the next one arises.

But as with the body’s VO2 max, superior corporate performance comes from increasing an organization’s metabolic capacity for change. Leaders don’t want their teams to simply get past a given change. They want to increase, over time and with the repeatability of an elite athlete, their capacity for change.

The value of strengthening this change muscle became clear to me while my colleague Kevin Murphy and I were researching the factors that contribute to an organization’s ability to change. We found that this “Change Power” is comprised of nine different elements: three leadership elements (purpose, connection, and direction), three organizational elements (development, flexibility, and action), and three teaming elements (choreography, scaling, and capacity). You can read more about our work in this summer’s edition of Harvard Business Review.

Capacity is one of the most important of these elements. It defines how much an organization can change and how fast. It is a useful measure and one most leaders want to figure out how to increase.

But organizations, like the human body, do not have an infinite capacity to absorb change. People, and organizations, are like a sponge. There is a limit to how much change can be poured into them. Once the sponge is saturated, anything additional poured onto it simply runs over. In this context, a relevant question for leaders is often “How full is your sponge?”

There is an upper limit to our ability to adjust to change, but with regular training, most people and organizations can improve. So, an even more powerful question to ask may be “How can I increase my sponge’s absorption rate?”

It’s an important question with a complicated answer. There are a few foundational things that most leadership teams tend to do, and then there is a second set of activities that we see in practice only at the frontier, among the companies with the highest Change Power.

Increasing capacity always starts with systematically identifying current and potential bottlenecks where efforts might slow down. These are where you as a manager focus your efforts. There are more and less sophisticated ways to do this, but a good place to start is with stimulating a simple dialogue about which functions or departments feel overloaded. From there, many options exist, including removing activities that have little return, sequencing work in a way that’s less disruptive, adding resources, reassigning managers in critical positions, and providing them with additional coaching to improve their personal capacity to absorb change. As a general philosophy, the most effective teams often adopt a “do less better” approach. This requires the courage and discipline to say no, or at least “not yet,” to good initiatives and ideas, in order to ensure the mission-critical ones have the space and resources to thrive.

Leading companies are going further and employing more advanced capacity-building tactics. One example: Human resources departments are increasingly using sentiment analyses and other techniques for listening to staff, such as networks of change ambassadors and focus groups, to help identify areas of potential change overload that may affect performance.

One global firm established a network of people around the world who regularly responded to surveys and participated in focus groups. The group served as an early warning system to detect pockets of the company that were feeling overloaded. Once these crunched teams were identified, additional staff with the crucial skills would be dynamically deployed to teams working on high-priority, must-win missions. Leadership teams then periodically stepped back, assessing the signs of potential overload and, with an eye to company strategy, rebalancing work as needed.

Deploying these kinds of techniques, it is possible for organizations to make their sponge more absorbent. In the short term, that’s done with thoughtful sequencing and prioritization of work, and by adding resources where they will be most valuable. In the long term, it’s by increasing the VO2 max equivalent of the organization, its metabolic capacity for change.

So, one more question: What are you doing to expand your capacity for change?

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