Clarity of direction is important for any company – without it, employees end up “doing” work activities rather than focusing their energy and time on mission-critical tasks. The meaning of work gets lost when employees end up doing work because it has to be done. At the same time, however, in the current turbulent environment where companies are dealing with new technologies, mergers and acquisitions, restructurings, new strategies, cultural transformation, globalisation and e-business, “people change what they do less because they are given analysis that shifts their thinking than because they are shown a truth that influences their feelings” (John Kotter: The Heart of Change). When company leadership gets this right, they win. When they handle it poorly, they drive employees crazy – it can cost a great deal of money and cause a lot of pain.
Company “make-overs” cannot and should not be introduced without taking into cognisance the burning issues facing managers and employees on the ground. With many short and medium term issues plaguing production and productivity as a whole, the attention of executives, managers and supervisors will not be given to developing an inspiring vision for the future, but on putting out the fires. I believe that they are right – you can’t worry about vision and long term transformation when the house is burning down. When company crocodiles are nipping at your heels, you need to deal with the crocodiles – to some degree, you need to get the crises under control.
In a sense, crises can be helpful – they develop a sense of urgency. Whilst having everyone’s full attention on account of this urgency, discussions can be held to understand what is needed to prevent similar crises in the future. So, whilst making decisions on how to spend money on sorting out the immediate issues, leaders simultaneously can talk about how to structure an investment programme for the future. In other words, these discussions start to build interest in and urgency for the bigger transformation problems. In turbulent environments, vision is catalysed as leaders start to look at sustainability and survival into the future.
Vision creation often surfaces out of a sense of angst – without this urgency, many may think that there has already been too much change; some may think a few more quick-fixes will do the job; others may say that they are already too busy to take on new challenges and a few may even think that the way they do things works just fine. In addition to urgency, however, Kotter also notes: “Vision-first advocates often misjudge the change team that’s in place. They don’t see that the group was great for the past, not the future, or that the group does not work well enough together to guide a major change”. Building the right team for the intended future change thus becomes an equally important contributor as the urgency required for making the change.
Deal first with the company crocodiles that are snapping at your heels before embarking on large-scale change. Snapping crocodiles produce a sense of urgency and the crocodile-slayers will step forward if the environment is created for them to do so. They will also help the organisation drive future change initiatives successfully.