Our world, our universe is characterized by constant change. Stars are born and die, storms transform the landscape, nations rise and fall, people change over time. In the business world economies grow and collapse, business models evolve, industries transform and even the Top 100 list of leading companies completely changes in a matter of a few years.
But sometimes the speed and scope of change is extremely rapid, its consequences unforeseeable and unpredictable. This makes planning and decision making highly risky because it is so difficult to see what the future holds. “Everybody has a plan,” said championship boxer Mike Tyson, “until they get punched in the face.”
To help explain the often sudden, fluid, rapidly evolving and dynamic forces of change – that “punch in the face” — the U.S. Army War College created the term V.U.C.A. to describe and ultimately deal with highly dynamic, shifting and challenging situations.
“Write down a change you would like to make in an organization that you are currently with…or change in the marketplace. Any kind. It can be a big change, it could be a small change – strategic, tactical, something you want people to start doing, something you want people to stop doing,” says Jeff Leitner as he looks around a room filled with CEOs, CFOs, CIOs, and other C-Suite executives at this year’s InterimExecs’ RED Team meeting. He continues “You’re change is absolutely, almost certainly going to fail. It’s not your fault. It has nothing to do with your particular genius – has nothing to do with your insights. Changes fail. They almost always fail.”
Jeff Leitner knows a thing or two about change and innovation. He spent the last 20 years improving organizations from the US State Department to NASA, Starbucks, Panera, and the Dalai Lama Center for Peace. In a world where innovation and disruption is key, the question is why does change rarely stick in organizations, markets, and society? Jeff has dedicated years to studying why change fails and in his most recent speaking circuit, is sharing what leaders can do to be more effective in leading change initiatives.
It used to be that business was for-profit or non-profit, and never the twain shall meet. Companies were profit-driven or purpose-driven, but not really both. A survey of Fortune 1000 CEOs and C-suite executives found that 51% believe there is an inherent tension or conflict between a company being profit- or purpose-driven. Such thinking is now becoming outmoded and has reached something of a turning point.
This departure from long-held economic thinking could be a revolutionary change for shareholders, however, many investors are coming to see greater employee purpose and personal “why” working to support long-term success for the company, and in an altruistic sense, the world. Corporate America has taken a look around and some conscientious players noticed that resources were being stripped at an unsustainable rate and decided to alter the way they were doing business. Now, it’s commonplace for a company to have a defined corporate social purpose beyond generating a profit.
After spending years or even generations building a successful family business, some of the toughest conversations circle around succession planning. What happens when an owner steps down from the business? Will it be passed down to family members, and is that individual ready to lead? Will it be prepared for sale, and will an owner get the value they want from an exit? What are the benefits of succession planning and are they worthwhile? How do you write a succession plan? The list of questions can make your head spin.
Family-owned businesses in the US generated 64% of the national GDP and created 78% of new jobs in 2018 while employing more than half the country. Family businesses of all sizes are vital to our economy yet in a 2016 PricewaterhouseCoopers survey, only 23% of family businesses had a full succession plan in place.
We just experienced possibly the largest wave of CEO departures in recent history. Was it due to falling profits? Poor succession planning? Or is there more drama behind the scenes? Think firings, hurt egos, politics, and personal infighting. Author Isabelle Nüssli uncovers one of the big reasons for turmoil at the top ― the fractious relationships between egos at the executive level, particularly between CEO and chairperson. Hence the brilliant title of her new book, Cockfighting: Solving the Mystery of Unconscious Sabotage at the Top of the Corporate Pyramid.
“When you read the news, usually the reason [given for the CEO leaving] was strategy misalignment or different leadership style or different chemistry, etc. But the story that is not put out to the public is that there was a relational conflict, which apparently is the case most of the time,” says Nüssli.
“We stand on the brink of a technological revolution that will fundamentally alter the way we live, work, and relate to one another”, says Klaus Schwab, Founder and Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum (WEF).
Innovation has been accelerating for the past 300 years, but with today’s pace of technological advances, Schwab says the speed of current breakthroughs has no historical precedent. We are now entering a 4th Industrial Revolution where when compared to previous industrial revolutions, we are evolving at an exponential rate rather than linear rate.
Schwab describes: “The First Industrial Revolution used water and steam power to mechanize production. The Second used electric power to create mass production. The Third used electronics and information technology to automate production. Now a Fourth Industrial Revolution is building on the Third, the digital revolution that has been occurring since the middle of the last century. It is characterized by a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres.”
Lose weight. Exercise more. The new year’s resolutions are in full gear right now. Whether it’s getting to the gym, reading more, or eating more greens, January usually begins with a reflection of how we did and what we can do more, better, faster this year.
We focus so much on being proactive in our health and personal care. But what about our business health? Is it just business as usual, again? Or do we have bigger business goals for 2019?
Talking to company owners and investors over the years, we have discovered a lot less proactivity than you’d expect and a lot more complacency. We don’t mean activity – everyone has lots of to-do lists – where busy work mask over big or growing problems.
We often get calls when the house is on fire: cash is draining away from the business, employees are jumping ship, frustrations are mounting, or lack of fresh thinking, innovation and true leadership have led to stagnation in the market. Owners say to us my ‘business is failing, what do I do’.
It’s hard not to think how many sleepless nights could have been avoided for an owner if they would have just acted sooner. We mean solve the issues not just by trying to dive in themselves or harangue the management team more, but instead through resources or tools that could extend their capabilities and help make vision a reality.
No organization is immune to challenges, not if it has any ambition. But how do we as owners and leaders put our strategy hat on to see down the road, or attempt to see, to predict where markets will go, how customers will act and react? To play the great game of chess in the real world – which is strategy.
Sometimes that is easier said than done. The eloquent Mike Tyson put it so well when he said, “everybody has a plan until I punch them in the mouth.” We would do well to remember how limited our brilliant strategies in fact are, how fragile in the face of ambiguity, uncertainty and future black swan events.
Just look to history to see how companies have been blindsided with the punch they never saw coming. Kodak invented the first digital camera in 1975, but put launch on hold in fear of cannibalizing their film business. We all know the story from there….Kodak who? Or take Blockbuster – which failed to pivot when Netflix showed up. And then Borders and Barnes & Noble, crushed under the Amazon onslaught. And the examples of business strategy gone wrong go on…
The Olympics are the perfect example of the difference between champions who win gold, silver or bronze, and everyone else who goes home empty handed. The winner could be winning by just one ten thousandths of a second.
Why do you think you or I are any different in our work – if we could improve our performance just a couple percentage points, we’d stand out from the masses clear as day.
Steve Jobs was genius at nuance, the subtle improvement that could cause massively asymmetric outcomes in favor of Apple. Thirty companies had MP3 products delivering hardware, software and content for streaming music. The category was done. Then along came the iPod. Not major changes, but so much better!
How many owners or executive teams are truly confident that their organization is operating at it’s best? How many have a true action plan for the future? And how many of those can actually execute on the plan?
Donald Sull, a lecturer at MIT and an expert on strategy execution surveyed hundreds of companies on how strategy is executed and found that many lack agility or have difficulties adapting to market circumstances. In a HBR article he reported that most organizations either “react so slowly that they can’t seize fleeting opportunities or mitigate emerging threats or react quickly but lose sight of company strategy”.
These fears are echoed by executives across companies and industries.