Leaders today know that they need to be agile — to change direction quickly in the face of changing or uncertain conditions. But a byproduct of agility is churn: The confusion and demotivation that comes from many such pivots. This can cause inefficiency that bogs down innovative projects and strategies. The author advises that leaders instead set and communicate an unchanging overarching goal, while allowing that how they achieve that goal can and will change over time.
One of the most lauded leadership characteristics today is the ability to pivot — to change course quickly when a planned path is blocked or revealed to be disadvantageous. This kind of rapid adaptation, often referred to as agility, is critical in a fast-changing environment or when innovating in unknown territory where old behaviors and management practices no longer work. It’s considered by some to be a leadership superpower.
Any leadership superpower, however, can become a weakness. When leaders change course on projects frequently, their people can become confused about what they are supposed to do (or at least need to spend time re-planning and addressing the change), introducing inefficiency and churn and impeding progress. It’s also demotivating: It’s like telling someone to run north, then south, then north, and then south again. After reversing direction so many times, the smart move for an employee is to stand still until the leader figures it out.
The solution to this problem can’t simply be to “reduce agility.” Leaders in these cases are largely doing the right thing in the face of fast-changing conditions and high degrees of uncertainty. Rather than stay committed to a path that might lead to a dead end or waste the company’s time and resources, they’re pivoting their teams to what they think will be a more productive direction, and then doing it again and again if necessary.
Based on my years of experience advising firms on innovation and efficiency, I believe that to counter the negative effects of these changes, leaders guiding their teams through pivots should better differentiate means and ends: They should be able to articulate an end goal that stays constant even as the means to get there change.
Let’s look at two examples. At a tech venture that I advised, the founder had created his core product through lots of experimentation and improvisation, trying one thing after another until it became clear what worked. As the company grew to over 100 engineers with multiple project teams all building off of the original product design, however, the founder’s desire to keep improvising and shifting directions became more of a liability than a strength. One manager described the effect as a type of paralysis where everyone just waits for the next instruction. “No one is willing to take any initiative,” she said, “since whatever we do is probably going to be changed.”
This dynamic of over-agility is an issue for small startups and large companies alike. Several years ago, I worked with a multibillion dollar personal care company that had made three midsized acquisitions as a way of diversifying their product portfolio. Because each of these acquisitions included well-known brands, the CEO planned to leave them alone to operate as wholly owned but independent entities. But after a few months, under pressure from the board to extract more synergistic value from the acquisitions, he changed course and asked his corporate functions (HR, finance, and so on) to align the acquired entities’ processes and systems with those of the core company. But having people from all the corporate functions descend on the acquired firms proved to be disruptive, so he then backed off and told the corporate functions to just pick one or two systems to standardize. By this time, the managers of the acquired entities were completely confused about what their owners really wanted and told their people to just sit tight and not do anything until things became clearer.
In both of the cases cited here, and in many other instances of over-agility, leaders pay so much attention to the means of achieving a goal that they (and their teams) lose focus on the end result. In the tech startup, the founder wanted the experiments to reveal new product opportunities but didn’t make clear his vision for the next generation of products. In the absence of a clear product vision, all possibilities were valid. Similarly, in the personal care company, the CEO never articulated an overarching goal for the integration of the newly acquired firms. In fact, it seemed that he was making it up as he went along and changing the goal depending on the reactions he was getting from investors, his team, and the managers of the acquired firms. Little wonder that this generated confusion among the people who needed to execute.
The good news here is that the over-focus on “means” and under-focus on “ends” is correctable, once the leader realizes that this is what’s happening. It’s a matter of both goal-setting and communication. At the tech company, the founder ultimately received strong feedback from his team that the constant engineering changes meant that the teams weren’t sure what they were supposed to do. In response, he worked with his team to create parameters for what the next product should look like — and then left the teams more space to figure out how to get there. Today the teams are more productive and confident that they are on a path to building a new product that will be commercially viable.
At the personal care company, the CEO, realizing that the company was not getting the expected return on investment from its acquisitions, asked the head of business development to do a brief study about how the company should integrate new companies. One key conclusion was that there should be a more specific goal and vision for each entity post-acquisition — and that the integration team would then be empowered to find the right pathways to meet that goal. This approach was then applied to the three acquisitions.
For example, one of the acquired companies had strong market share and brand recognition in a particular product category, so the goal that the team developed was to accelerate this category’s growth. Early in the integration process, however, the team realized that they were in danger of losing much of the talent that came with the acquisition if they continued to force everyone to follow the processes and methods of the new owner. This would have put the growth goal in jeopardy because the experience of this team was necessary to build on the success of the category. So they changed course: Instead of integrating the acquisition into the parent company, they adopted a “reverse acquisition” approach in which some of the parent company’s people would report to the acquired company’s management team. But the ultimate goal — growing success in the core category — stayed the same. Managers were no longer confused or demoralized, and eventually this new division exceeded the growth expectations that were envisioned early on.
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If you are on a project, or leading a project, that seems to be constantly thrown off by changing course, then step back and ask the following question: Are we clear about our end-goal — the outcome we need to achieve — and do we feel that our changes are getting us closer to that goal? If the answer is not an emphatic “yes,” then you may need to work on better defining and communicating your goals so that your agility doesn’t get in the way of your effectiveness.