by Patricia Wallington

Flexible Leadership Style is Best

Sep 15, 20036 mins
IT Leadership

Here’s a scenario that might sound familiar. Times are difficult at your company. The turnaround plan you developed last year was just right for the needs of the organization—or so you thought—but for some reason, it’s just not going anywhere. The plan is underfunded and underresourced, momentum has slowed to a crawl, and stakeholder enthusiasm has waned. You even detect the beginnings of hallway grumbling. What should you do—hold fast or scrap everything in favor of a new plan?

Now is the time to plumb the depths of your resourcefulness and reach for a flexible leadership style. First, repeat after me: The greatest plan, unimplemented, is not worth the paper it’s written on. Your objective is to get things done—even if it requires undoing a lot of previous effort. Letting go of preconceived notions is the first order of business, but it’s sometimes the hardest thing to do. The current plan might indeed be the best one for your company, but if you appear to be closed to alternatives, that could sound the plan’s death knell. Here are some things you can do to show that you’re open to change—if it’s in the right direction.

Lay the foundation. An important element of success will be the foundation you lay for change. Begin to “unfreeze” the environment that is set on the current plan. Point out changes in the market that could impact your strategy. Highlight competitors’ actions that demonstrate their adaptability. Collect examples of the failures that can be attributed to unwillingness to change. You should consider all your constituencies when devising communiqu¿about what the future holds. Senior executives, the business partners, your staff, even vendors, will have a stake in any new direction to be pursued. Now is not the time to surprise them.

Analyze the blocks. Assess why the current plan doesn’t seem to be working. Is the business less committed to it than you originally thought? Have there been significant changes in the company’s financial circumstances? Are technology changes introducing fear of early obsolescence? Are people’s skills inadequate for the task? Has the risk elevated? Understanding these issues—their depth and breadth—will help you craft a solution that will fit the changing nature of the problem and establish new priorities.Reengineer or redo. Perhaps you can hold on to your vision for change but approach the implementation differently. Be creative, and keep the focus on what it will take to get things moving. Back in the heyday of reengineering, I had a project that just couldn’t get past first base. Everyone expressed support, but it just didn’t happen. I realized that the proposed change was just too radical for the environment, technically and organizationally. We revised our approach to allow for a more gradual, phased implementation. The solution was not as elegant, it cost more and took longer than the original business plan, but it helped us accomplish our goals.

Other reengineering actions to consider include aiming for easier or more concrete targets, eliminating some steps and using a zigzag path to your destination rather than a straight-line plan. Is there a 90 percent solution that will work? Now might be the time to say, “Why not give it a try?”

Get help, especially if you need a new vision. Other executives not invested in the project can help you think beyond the existing business plan. Are there companies with the same problems? Find out how they are solving them. Consider ventures with these companies or vendors. Change your mind-set from “How much do I need?” to “How little can I do this with?”

Communicate. Develop communications to explain changes. Be open and truthful. Don’t let rumors beat you to the punch. If appropriate, align the new plan with the business strategy that changed. Above all, be positive. Sometimes things happen for the best. That necessary change could turn out to be an advantage.

Wimp not. One of the truisms I discovered in my career was that it is harder to kill a failing project than to let it drift along. So it takes courage to show the flexibility to adapt to emerging environmental issues. There will surely be some who will criticize change—maybe even the same people who were grumbling in the hallway about the lack of progress. Keep your focus on what’s possible. When success is on the horizon, the grumblers will begin to take credit! I have one caution: Flexibility is not a strategy you can invoke too often without earning the “Flavor of the Month” award.

Build in flexibility. Because this world we live in is ever-changing, it’s wise to build as much flexibility and agility into your business plan as you can. That will help obviate the need to make dramatic changes frequently. A sound start is to know your environment and fit the solution to the problem. Avoid being a solution in search of a problem—the “Johnny One-Note” phenomenon. I once observed a new employee try to apply a solution he had utilized successfully in his previous company: Buy a well-known software package, install it with no modifications, and change all business processes to fit the package design. Unfortunately, the size, complexity and cultures of the two companies were very different. It resulted in a very costly, painful failure for the company and the individual.

Create a range of alternative plans that fit different scenarios. Build into them the triggers that will cause a shift in strategy when the circumstances match a different scenario. Conduct regular reviews in which the original assumptions are retested for relevance. It is changes in these assumptions that will be the leading indicators of a changing environment.

Since funding is frequently the most volatile factor in planning, develop upscale and downscale versions of your business plans. Align the features of a plan with a minimum investment figure and time line. That will be the lowest level of implementation that can succeed. Then outline the enriched version with its investment level and time line. This will force you to think through the ramifications of having to downscale before it becomes an emergency. It can also preclude falling into the trap of getting approval for an enriched business plan but not the funding to support it.

Remember that in today’s world, success is not about being the greatest thinker but about who can get things done. Oliver Wendell Holmes said it best: “Greatness is not in where we stand, but in what direction we are moving. We must sail sometimes with the wind and sometimes against it—but sail we must, and not drift, nor lie at anchor.”