Survive Or Thrive—The Choice Is Yours

This is the quiet before the storm. I just finished off a plate of chicken marsala in an Italian restaurant, enveloped in the gentle clinking of forks and knives on china, plaid tablecloths, and bottles of olive oil. It all feels so warm and civilized, except for the luggage cars racing past the window and flashing lights of airplanes reminding me I am no longer in New York. I’m at Chicago O’Hare Airport stopping over on the way to the West Coast.

Tomorrow I’ll be working with a company struggling through tremendous pain. This once high-flying tech pioneer is trying to hold on as the foundation under its feet shifts into sand. Revenues are falling and the headcount is dropping. Anxiety is growing. Do they have the right strategy? Even if they do, do they have the cash and loyalty to execute it?

This is surely not the only company asking such questions. Despite the recent stock-market rally and the continued long-term bullishness I am seeing in most corporations, a huge portion of companies are worried about how they will survive.

Here are four critical steps you can take to trigger a transformation, to move from just surviving to thriving. I collected these last month during my latest "Outthinker Network" meeting in New York. This group of entrepreneurs and senior execs include chief innovation officers, chief strategy officers, and business unit heads—the kinds of people who have managed through troubling times before yet are self-aware enough to know they still have a lot to learn.

We spent the entire afternoon discussing how to manage change and transformation and concluded the discussion with a set of jewels—key lessons that anyone seeking to survive and thrive should be thinking about today.

1. Listen: Before you decide what action to take, force yourself to listen. You wouldn’t want a doctor to diagnose you without first using his stethoscope, would you? One member shared a tip we all wrote down in our notebooks: Pay close attention to what your organization punishes and ignores. Do they punish risk-taking (even while they publically espouse it)? Do they ignore comments like "Our products are just not as good as our competitors’"?

2. Check leadership commitment: Successful change efforts almost always require the support and buy-in of top management. The alternative is a revolution. At McKinsey, we used a framework to test the top leadership’s level of commitment to a recommendation before making the recommendation. The theory was that even the best idea is useless if it is not one that top management could be convinced to execute. "Great transformations require great leaders," one member commented.

3. Add and remove: After you’ve listened to your organization and tested your leadership’s commitment to change, you start formulating your change plan. Look for what you need to add and remove. Approach this as an artist would. You have a vision for success—a blueprint—and you contrast that with what the organization is today to clearly isolate what behaviors, outcomes, or structures need to be added or removed. My 5-year-old son loves doing this with Legos. He’ll spend hours moving back and forth between a pile of Lego pieces and an instruction booklet, putting together the pieces until he has what he wants—this weekend it was an electrical repair truck I bought for him in Beijing.

4. Craft a simple story: We learn through stories. We know what to do through stories. Stories are the messengers that speed instructions and information throughout your organization. In today’s fast-paced, chaotic, and decentralized world, your memos and org charts are too slow. Instead, you should focus on what stories you tell (and which stories stick) as your central tool for driving change.

What this means for me is that tomorrow morning, when I sit down with the client, I am going to listen first for what they say the company punishes and ignores. I will then ask questions to sense how committed their top leadership is to surviving and thriving. Do they have the fortitude to take on the required changes? I’ll then help them think about what needs to be added or removed and pull out some compelling stories that will communicate what needs to be changed.

How about you? What are you looking to change in the world? Have you clarified what is being rewarded and ignored? Do you have the commitment to win? Does your top leadership? What needs to be added or removed? What simple stories will help your change message catch fire?

[Image: Flickr user ecstaticist]

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