“When alligators are nipping at your heels, you need to deal with the alligators” (Nick Pearce)

Before creating a grandiose vision for the company, the leadership team needs to deal with the crises or at least get them under control. They should focus on putting out the big fires and on anything that can quickly restart those fires, otherwise there will be no energy for transformation, and in the most severe cases, they will get into such trouble that they will never be able to build a strong organisation.

Nick Pearce relates a problem that he faced with the company for which he was consulting. He noted: “We had to radically change the organisation if we were to be an important part of the future. Because we had problems that were very visible, crisis-like problems, I assumed we did not have to spend much time trying to get people’s attention. So, I spent all of my time in the first two or three months trying to facilitate a discussion among the executive team. We talked in big-picture terms. What are the key transformation issues? What might a good vision be? I worked very hard at this.”

The only problem was that it became very tough to get the senior team together to talk. He would have to chase them repeatedly to get them to meetings, even asking them to confirm their attendance. Without any enthusiasm and without the required attendance, however, the end result wasn’t very good. They did manage to put a vision of sorts on paper, but it was a paper exercise. The executive’s attention was elsewhere. Pearce gave himself 10 out of 10 for effort and a 0 out of 10 for results.

At the time, Pearce didn’t realise how massive the short-term problems were. There were new contracts that needed to be negotiated and understood. There were maintenance and operational schedules using new suppliers and budgetary processes that had to be planned. There were new systems that people needed to use. He noted: “It felt like the house was burning down around you.”

Pearce had to shift his whole focus. Instead of saying: “Let’s spend Friday working on the vision statement,” he’d say: “Our maintenance program is disintegrating around our ears so let’s do something about it.” This approach got the senior team’s attention and started to make a difference. As they worked on putting out fires, they started discussing how to structure the investment plan for the future – they started to build interest in, and urgency for, the bigger transformation problems. As he solved the issues of ‘now’, the vision for the future became apparent.

Pearce concludes: “I now believe that you can’t, and shouldn’t, worry about vision and long-term transformation when the house is burning down. Use crises to get people’s attention and then run ahead to vision.”

John P Kotter, in his book “The Heart of Change”, suggests: “In successful change efforts, the first step is making sure sufficient people act with sufficient urgency. Without enough urgency, large-scale change can become an exercise in pushing a gigantic boulder up a very tall mountain.”

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