You Don’t Need a Crisis to Change

Threats focus an organization’s attention on the need for change with an urgency that can give cover to deep transformations. The moment is an opportunity, often felt as an imperative. As the economist and Nobel laureate Paul Romer famously said, “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.”

But what if your company is doing just fine, great even, but you still need to change? It may be that you want to stay relevant, or to seize an opportunity you see. In today’s environment the need for change is ever increasing, but that doesn’t mean it’s always negative. There may be a threat that you need to get ahead of, or, just as likely, an exciting new possibility you want to run to.  

How do you motivate a desire to change, though, when all that your employees see is blue skies?

This is a challenge that runs deep, originating in human instinct and modes of processing information. Our limbic system in the brain helps us automatically respond to potential danger and signs of threat. In times of crisis, it is activated, removing resources from the neocortex, our “thinking” brain. So when we hear a shout of “Fire!” all our energy is put toward taking action.

By contrast, enticing happy, satisfied people to embark on a journey of opportunity that may also pose danger and uncertainty is trickier and more subtle. This requires tapping into our capacity for innovation, generosity and creativity, all functions of the rational neocortex.

While fear often comes with a clear understanding of the danger at hand, the dream of doing something better is far less concrete. With fear you may have little choice; ultimately you have to move. The dream, however, is a choice that you make or don’t make. It’s not inevitability, but rather possibility. It’s harder, but often more rewarding.

So while it’s tough to change when you are in a position of strength, often that is just the moment to start.

Companies and leaders that are good at this type of change focus an unusual amount of effort on building commitment and engaging people in the journey. Selling this change can be hard. It’s a struggle for people to first hear it and then to want to do it. It’s easier to deny the need. So these leaders emphasize buy-in, first from the leadership team, and then more broadly in the organization.  

New CEOs often face this particular challenge. In some cases, they hope to mold their legacy, in others, to deliver on the promise they’ve made to the board or shareholders. Either way, they must establish their authority as leaders at the same time as undertaking a strategic overhaul.

This is the position a CEO found himself in after being promoted to the top job at a global health company. The company had strong revenue and profits at the time, but certain challenges were bubbling up. Like any new CEO, he had to prove himself and do so quickly, and he believed his job was to help the company navigate a broadly changing environment.

He inherited an accomplished senior leadership team, but many of the executives who reported to him had been in their positions for a long time. They were familiar with the traditional ways of working.

To help this core group see the opportunity for change, the CEO launched a series of intense leadership team workshops. In the first, executives participated in an exercise cataloging the opportunities and problems they saw at the time, and those anticipated in the future.

The team quickly came up with long lists, but even as they dug into the details, a sense of urgency was lacking. One key executive voiced ambivalence. Nothing on the lists was all that bad. Recent financial results had been good, pay was strong and change is hard. Why rock the boat?

It was a surprise when, some time later, that same executive suddenly jumped up out of his chair. “This is apoptosis!” he declared, using the term for the death of cells that is a normal and controlled part of an organism’s growth or development. Without change, he realized, his company would, over time, become less and less relevant. 

Within company leadership the term “apoptosis” became a rallying cry that captured both the need for and the spirit of change, and getting people’s attention far beyond the executive suite. In time, the team went on to put in place a strategic plan that helped them move past historical challenges, innovate with new lines of revenue and execute a broad, effective transformation without ever hitting the brink of disaster.

Spending the time to get strong executive buy-in is important because transformation efforts require enormous time and energy from top leadership. Without a crisis to lean on, they must craft a compelling argument and sell it, getting the organization’s broad alignment. In a transformation’s early days, executive teams often devote half a day or even a full day every week just to working on the message, communicating it and measuring their results.

For executives assessing the opportunity to push for change before a crisis hits, there are a few questions worth asking:

  • If you don’t do it now, how high a price will you pay later?
  • How long can you afford to wait?
  • What is the motivation for you? For your team?

If the answers make clear that change is needed, the next question, of course, is how to do that. Leaders who succeed at sparking change early exhibit a few common traits. They invest significant time and energy early, recognizing that it will be challenging to get started and build momentum. They prepare upfront and invest their strongest resources, knowing this process will be hard. They paint an exciting picture of the future, recognizing that the current state, no matter what they say, won’t feel all that horrible, and focus considerable time on engaging the senior team in building and aligning around that message. Finally, they test their senior team to ensure they are up for this demanding journey and block regular time together to strengthen the team, ensure their strong sponsorship of the change and support one another.

Energy comes from awareness of the gap between what is and what could be. By focusing on what’s possible, leaders can build a positive argument for change that’s every bit as compelling as fear, and often more effective.

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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.

Kevin Murphy is a member of Bain & Company’s Results Delivery® practice and a partner in the firm’s Washington, DC, office. Neysa Colizzi is a principal in the Results Delivery practice and is based in Chicago.

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