All business leaders recognize the need for change.  The world is just moving too fast to even dream that we can continue operating under the status quo from year to year.  But change requires energy.  How can business leaders create the organizational energy needed to fuel change and overcome the inertia of status quo?

Tension for Change

In my years studying, teaching and leading sales people I often used the phrase “tension for change”.  This is defined as the motivation or energy to want to do something different.   This is critical in a sales function where a salesperson is trying to convince a prospect to buy a new product or service which to implement will involve some type of change for the prospect’s firm.  Their job, through probing questions and inquiry, is to help build tension for change in the mind of the prospect.

Jim Collins characterized this as “the enemy of great is good”.  If firms are good, somewhat successful and comfortable, why would they risk that to try to be great?  Being good is pretty “low stress”.  But as Collins writes, it’s often these “low stress” situations which lead firms to become complacent and to overlook the warning signs of potential downfall.

Make early warning signs visible

Tension for change can be generated within organizations in two ways.  The first is to ensure all employees recognize the problems with the current situation.  If I have my hand on the stove when it turns on, my current state gets uncomfortable in a matter of seconds.  That creates the tension for change to take action; namely removing my hand from the stove.  In companies, this discomfort with the current state can manifest itself in a variety of ways – dropping sales, lower earnings, loss of market share, turnover of key people, loss of key clients, etc.   Any of these situations could and should create tension.  But if we wait until these situations are occurring it may be too late.

A better way is to establish “Leading Indicators” or key measures that predict problems before they become dire.  For example, if dropping revenue will create discomfort (which for most firms it would), we can establish and regularly review predictive numbers like the number of new leads, sales conversion, number of website hits, or customer satisfaction metrics.  Establishing performance thresholds and then making these leading indicators visible to everyone through business execution software can ensure that the tension and discomfort is felt early enough to take timely action.

Brightness of future

The second way to generate tension for change is to clarify a better future state as compared to the current state.  In our work we call this a “brightness of future”; a vision of what the organization could be like in a desired future.  This is executed through a thorough and comprehensive strategic planning process that engages all key stakeholders and creates a vivid picture of the desired future state.

And the more contrasting the vision of the future is the more tension for change can be created.  Think of it as an elastic band held between two hands.  The further away the hands are, the greater the tension in the elastic.

Leading Strategic Change

Creating the energy, motivation and tension to pull an organization away from the inertia of status quo can be created for all employees by either surfacing current issues or problems and/or by creating a vivid picture of a desired future state.  The game plan for leading strategic change should always include these elements:

  • Confront reality every quarter by reviewing both key results and the competitive environment.
  • Recognize through predictive measures the early warning signs of issues and problems.
  • Continuously re-paint the vivid picture of the future, the “brightness of future”, and keep all employees motivated, engaged and excited about getting there.
  • Using business execution software, ensure the current performance, predictive measures and accountability for strategic priorities is always visible.