5 obstacles that kill adaptivity

It's nice to say that you want your organization to be adaptive, but before heading down that path and becoming frustrated by slow progress, do you understand five obstacles that could be holding back progress in a major way?

Cargo ship with shipping containers in ocean

Microsoft: "Bring us all your containers!"

Credit: Thinkstock

So you've decided that your organization needs to be adaptive. We've discussed the attributes of being adaptive: scalable, extensible, responsive, forward leaning, market driving, modular, and a leader. But if we reflect back to the lessons we learned in change management 101, we know that to move forward, we need to identify the obstacles and remove them.

There are five major organizational obstacles that inhibit adaptability that need to be addressed first:

  • Unclear communication
  • Myopia
  • Imbalanced incentives
  • Monoliths
  • Obstinance

Let's dig into these.

1. Unclear communication. When I sit down with teams for the first time, I start with "tell me about your services." In most cases, the conversation ends up going between what they deliver that has value and how they deliver it. The message, to say the least, isn't usually clear. You could very easily come away with multiple opinions of what the team does. This creates confusion and slows any change in the organization.

Leaders can help improve communications by forcing two simple questions: What is your elevator pitch? and What's the one page summary of your team? Then, you can dig in and begin to help teams and individuals adjust how they communicate and use more precise and effective language. Once you've done this, it becomes easier to identify and adjust organizational inefficiencies that can slow progress.

2. Myopia. Let's face it, most people in an organization have to contend with the short-term and are encouraged to address problems now, without creating long-term plans. In organizations struggling to move more quickly, however, there is an over-emphasis of looking at things in the short term. When myopia- or nearsightedness - seems to be ingrained in an organization, the day-to-day operational activities take priority over longer term planning and unintended consequences abound.

Beyond tripping over your feet, the impacts of myopia include organizational fatigue, higher costs, and lower quality delivery. Seize the opportunity to translate a longer-term vision and strategy into how key operational and tactical decisions are made in an organization. This is like using glasses to correct the myopia, and enabling the organization to see both near and far with clarity.

3. Imbalanced incentives. So, if you fix communication and help people to be aware of how the day-to-day decisions impact the longer term strategy, what is still holding us back from starting to be more adaptive? Enter the wrong incentives. As much as leaders say the organization needs to be adaptable, it is meaningless if you still reinforce the old behaviors.

Create incentives that reinforce adaptability and remove the incentives that don't. Otherwise, you're saying one thing but doing another.

4. Monoliths. Who doesn't love monoliths? The one-stop solution for all your needs. They look beautiful when purchased and you start to use them. All of your problems solved. It's like that large ocean liner purchased to ship goods across the Pacific Ocean when air travel was still a fantasy. But things have changed and air shipping is now readily available; faster and cheaper than sea travel. What do you do?

Even though your organization may not be faced with having to figure out how to change a oceanic cargo ship into an airplane, ask yourself where your monoliths are. Begin to think about how you disassemble the monoliths, one piece at a time if you have to.

5. Obstinance. When you, as a leader, say "move", why wouldn't everyone just want to move in the new direction. You're the boss after all, right? If only things were that easy. The challenge is, even when people in the organization know that being more adaptable is the right thing to do, they don't know how to take that first step. The behaviors are reinforced through the incentives and they may think that they're adaptable already.

Help remove the distraction of obstinance by setting the vision of what it means to be adaptable for your organization. What it means for the change that is coming. How each and every team needs to operate and talk about espousing the attributes of adaptability.

The journey to adaptability isn't easy. Removing the obstacles that are seemingly ingrained into the fabric of the organization isn't easy either. The first step to adaptability, though, is removing those very obstacles.

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