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.
In the tsunami of digital transformation, it has dawned on boards that disruptive technologies pose not only a great opportunity, but also bring inherent risks. New technologies bring great promise to help businesses grow, improve efficiencies, and seize new markets. On the other hand, when an organization decides to embrace new technologies, they will come face-to-face with new business models and regulations that are unlike what they have ever seen before.
Boards may not be fully equipped to face the onslaught and speed at which new technologies are infiltrating the business sector. In fact, according to the 2018–2019 NACD Private Company Governance Survey, 80% of directors say that boards need to expand their knowledge of the challenges and risks of emerging technologies.
The great thing about playing the board game Monopoly as a kid was that you could buy up everything, collect rents all over the place (or get slaughtered if say your older sister was just a better player) but when the game ended, it was over.
We’re now living a real life monopoly game that’s crept up on even the strongest free markets.
In 2017, 75% of the beer market was cornered by three monopoly companies and one, Anheuser-Busch, held more than 40% alone. In the online search industry, one company monopolized the market and held 91% of market share and 98% of the cell phone market is concentrated among the four largest companies, with 70% being split between Verizon and AT&T alone. Even seemingly trivial things like peanut butter, coffins, and adult websites are all controlled by only a couple of firms.
Modern healthcare is as complex as physiology inside our own bodies. The healthcare industry is now waist deep in an era of extreme disruption. The breakneck pace of technological innovation coupled with the increasing aging population and chronic diseases is a recipe for historic changes in healthcare.
In the healthcare ecosystem, some organizations will sink, and some swim as disruption occurs. From hospitals to clinics, to patients to pharmaceutical companies, to insurers to medical technology businesses no entity will be unaffected.
Leaders in healthcare say legacy providers must respond swiftly to the changes. The abrupt exit of critical leadership, gaps in capacity and expertise, or old systems that no longer work can quickly become problems. Because these factors are interwoven, health care organizations can find themselves unraveling if they don’t act fast.
“How many businesses find their data to be a complete mess?” Christie Kelly, former CFO of JLL Real Estate questioned as she and a panel of high-profile CFOs discussed the changing landscape for financial leaders at an event held by the National Association of Corporate Directors.
In today’s world every business now seems to be in the game of being a technology business. That means that a new importance is placed on data, especially for CFOs.
“How do we transition to turn it (data) into insights, and how does that change finance to have more technology, process, and Six Sigma?” Kelly said.
The role of the CFO has evolved, due to the accelerated pace of the digital age. How? A strategic CFO drives transformational change. A CFO must not only understand a business from start to finish to provide financial excellence, but also must predict what is coming from a strategic standpoint and be ready to evolve.
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…
We were having a conversation with an executive recently who shared about their experience parachuting into a business that was struggling with operational inefficiencies.
This executive, like many interims, kicked off the assignment by meeting face-to-face with the management team and employees to learn how the business functions, what’s working, and what isn’t. Their findings would turn into an operational roadmap of the business, where they would set out and implement a go-forward plan. When meeting with one team member and learning about what they did, the executive pointed to a process they had in place asking “why do you do that?”
The answer: “Because we’ve always done it that way”
(Alarm bells begin to loudly ring)
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.