How Great Leaders Set the Tempo of Change

“Leadership’s hard, man....”

Bob Sutton doesn’t mince words when he talks about challenges leaders and organizations face. “The more complex it gets, the harder it gets,” he adds.

To say things are complicated today feels like an understatement. Facing COVID-19 and concurrently confronting systemic racism makes us eager for organizations to take action and drive change immediately. At the same time, dealing with so much complexity compels us to consider every angle, be deliberate, and make progress while also avoiding severe repercussions down the road.

Successful change efforts don’t happen at one speed. Change requires momentum and moderation at different points in the journey. In this episode of the Creative Confidence Podcast, Bob joins us to offer insights from his book Scaling Up Excellence: Getting More Without Settling for Less about how leaders can successfully drive organizational change by knowing when and how to pump the brakes and when to put the pedal to the metal. 


The Pace of Scaling Change

Bob goes beyond traditional understandings of what it means to scale. For him, it’s more than the growth of the company or adoption of a new process like design thinking—it’s about scaling excellence by identifying pockets of greatness in the organization and spreading them. Changing an organization this way, according to Bob, means that leaders need to find a way to make progress on tangible goals while also “spreading a mindset that changes people’s behavior.”

Scaling excellence shows us the ability to grow and expand must be met with the ability to evolve. To do this leaders must set the tempo—moving fast at times to drive progress and remain action-oriented and slowing down enough to make sure things are getting done right and everyone’s on board. A common trap for organizations is to get stuck in at one speed for too long.

Moving Too Fast

When trying to drive change, most people assume it’s all about moving as fast as you can to race ahead, but Bob cautions against this. If you’re moving too fast, it will start to show. “People get confused, upset, and things will go wrong all over the place,” says Bob when asked about the signs that indicate moving ahead too quickly. Sometimes, he says, the best option is to pause and slow down, especially when there’s great complexity or high risk. For example, most doctors make diagnoses very quickly, says Bob, and research shows this is how many medical mistakes are made. He says the best doctors, “slow down, they talk to another expert, and they suspend judgment.”

Moving Too Slow

On the other hand, you don’t want to move too slow. A while back, an executive from a large organization told Bob, “I feel like I’ve been going to the same meeting for 25 years.” For Bob, this is a sign that things have become a “ritualized Kabuki dance where people sort of acknowledge the problem, use talk as a substitute for action, and the same problems appear again.” Another sign that things are dragging along is when something that should be easy to accomplish is incredibly difficult to do and people are frustrated as a result. Look at the U.S. where it’s almost impossible to apply for unemployment insurance to understand this sentiment.

Good Debt and Bad Debt

Moving too fast or too slow leads to debt in one form or another. Some debt is good. Companies wouldn’t get off the ground without borrowing, people wouldn’t buy homes without mortgages, but there’s more than just financial debt when it comes to scaling. Citing a case study he did on Uber, Bob talks about two other forms of debt: organizational and technical. According to Bob’s research, Uber scaled quickly by shifting from a centralized code base to teams who were writing their own code for specific micro-services. This was like “Four hundred speed boats going in different directions,” said Bob, and it created a technical debt that had to be addressed when they attempted to wrangle all the code back together.

This culture created many problems, not just for code but for organizational behavior as well. This mindset of “do whatever you want” created organizational debt that could only be remedied by spreading new cultural norms that encouraged better behaviors. COVID didn’t do Uber any favors, but the reason they may not recover, according to Bob, centers on the debt they took on by moving way too fast.


How to Change Speed

It’s one thing to know there are moments you’ll want to move at different rates, yet recognizing those opportunities is only part of the battle. Knowing how to change the pace is equally important. Here are three ways you can switch up the pace:

1. Anger & Pride

If you want to move from slow to fast, Bob suggests infusing some emotion, “what really moves human beings is collective anger and collective pride.” Just look at Steve Jobs as an example. There was always an enemy to fight against—Dell, IBM, Bill Gates—and at the same time, teams at Apple also believed they were doing something great together, something they could be proud of.

2. Centralization & Decentralization

Decentralization enables speed. With many teams experimenting simultaneously, you’re more likely to find a good solution, but leaders need to know when to reign it in. “Decentralization is a great way to get innovation, but it’s not a very good way to get unity of effort,” says Bob. For example, there are dozens of groups currently working to find a vaccine for COVID-19. Eventually, one or two prominent options will emerge, the options will be culled, and centralized processes and systems become necessary. “It’s at the implementation point where you move from a more decentralized model to a centralized model,” says Bob and it's the leader’s job to keep the shift between these two modes and to explain their decision to others.

3. Optimism & Pessimism

Leaders who can expertly manage optimism and pessimism have an advantage. Optimism leads to action. Fueled by excitement about what could be, teams generate the momentum they need race forward. Which is a great thing until it gets too risky, and that’s where pessimism comes in. Pessimism is worry. It slows things down because it makes you look for problems and consider everything that could go wrong. At the beginning of a new effort, you want optimism, you want to leave space for failure and experimentation, but when it’s time to implement, you need pessimism to help you focus on the details and get things done the right way.


The Emotional Side of Organizational Change

Talking about anger and pride, optimism and pessimism, Bob illuminates something essential and often overlooked when it comes to organizational change efforts. While it can be easier to focus on the tactical—strategic decisions, plans, and processes—organizations are made up of people and people are emotional. “It’s part organizational design, you’ve got to move the roles around, change the practices, open and close things, hire and fire people, but it's also part therapy,” says Bob.

First and foremost, change can be uncomfortable and unsettling and everyone in the organization will be at a different place emotionally throughout the process. As a leader, it’s important to remember that you’ve likely had much more time to process the shifts that are going to occur. Keeping this in mind, you need to slow down when you express the changes to others who haven’t been on the journey with you. “When you try to describe change to people before they are ready to process it, they not only don’t accept it, they won’t understand it,” says Bob and this can be a big obstacle in moving things forward.

In addition to financial, technical, and organizational debt, organizations can also accrue emotional debt. This can occur when you shift from decentralized moments to centralized moments. Teams that started experiments that didn’t succeed won’t feel great when things codify into a more defined process. Additionally, emotional debt can accrue when you move too fast. Some leaders may push too hard and maybe they have to at times, but if this goes on for too long people will get tired, burned out, and angry. This means there needs to be a balance between getting things done while showing people some love and having fun at the same time.


Final Advice for Leaders - Friction & Accountability

Like Bob said, leadership’s hard and not getting any easier in today’s world. There’s an increasingly loud call for a transformation with leaders who have more emotional awareness and who can uphold values that create equitable and ethical environments. As a few pieces of parting advice for leaders out there, Bob wants you to think about friction and accountability.

Friction in an organization is not necessarily bad. Friction slows things down and can point to places where conversations need to happen, but people need to feel comfortable enough to be the squeaky wheel. “If the people who work for you aren’t complaining or arguing with you, that’s either because they’re too afraid to bring things up or they just don’t care, or a combination of the two,” says Bob. It’s the leader’s job to help people feel comfortable to name a mistake when they see it, call out risky decisions or bad behavior, and cultivate an environment that’s psychologically safe to do so. Bob suggests removing as many unnecessary hierarchies and power dynamics as possible to help facilitate this.

Additionally, he advises leaders to be accountable. As a leader, whether you like it or not, you will get more of the credit and more of the blame. “When things go wrong, raise your hand and say, I made this decision, the buck stops here, it’s my fault.” Without doing this, leaders come off as out of control and people would rather see you wrestling with control than blaming it on externals or brushing it off altogether. It won’t always be easy to do this or feel comfortable, but that’s how we make progress within ourselves and our organizations.

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