Pacing Change

The Operators series is for people in operating roles in high-growth startup and scaleups. Written from experience. For founders and their leadership teams, plus those talented motivated people interested in the bigger picture.

This title makes me chuckle. ‘Pacing change’. Yeah right.

Reminds me of the poem Ozymandias. As if we  – little ants – can pace and speed or slow the great forces exerted on our little firms, in our little lives.

And yet I still see pacing change as integral to the role of a leader in a growth organization.

In Managing Chaos and Momentum I gave a point of view on how as operators we can both handle the chaos of high growth and more positively, can harness and direct energy into a forward-movement.

Pacing change relates to both of these, and nonetheless is perhaps a third dimension in its own right too.

Maybe in driving terms Managing Chaos is the accelerator, Momentum is the travel forwards, and Pacing Change is our clutch pedal – the interstitial layer, the place where we hold energy, time energy and direct energy from.

Change is constant. Yes.

Change in start-ups and agile, disruptive orgs is even more constantly felt. Yes.

Too much change, too badly managed, too constantly, is bad for our organizations. Also Yes.

In fact, too much change, too badly managed, too constantly, will lead us to:

  • Customer dissatisfaction
  • Team attrition
  • Personal fatigue
  • Poor decision making
  • Bad reputations (externally, internally)
  • Greater friction everywhere
  • Loss of direction
  • Loss of momentum

…all of which can reduce or entirely suffocate:

  • Growth
  • Quality
  • Profitability
  • Wellbeing

pacing change

Great graphic huh.

So how do we pace change?

I guess the artistry in leadership is doing one’s best to figure out what change is going to be helpful, what change can or can’t be resisted or deferred and then plotting courses to helpfully pace change such that your team of five or five hundred can best digest it, process it and then perform through it.

To bring that to life, maybe there are 3 over-exaggerated caricatures of approaches you can take:

1. PULL THE BAND AID OFF

This approach is where a wave of changes come and although they are several (or maybe many) in number, and not insignificant (so it’s ‘a lot’), the context you’re operating means that you are compelled to pass the changes on wholesale and right-fricking-now, because anything else would not be best for the business and therefore the team.

So ‘pull the band aid off’ is just launch all the change straight through to the org with little filtering, little packaging up, little optimal timing. No amelioration. No mitigation. No management.

This approach has strengths in its authenticity, in not creating much upfront management overhead (because there is no timing, holding, confidentiality-managing, massaging), in giving the team the respect of receiving the information full-bore and in realtime. It also can powerfully create Momentum. This is Nokia’s ‘burning platform’ memo or Lou Gerstner’s turning IBM around or [insert your favorite turnaround / sports comeback  / military history story here]. In Horowitz’s ‘Hard Thing About Hard Things’ this is wartime CEO mode.

It also just gets it done, and in growth mode, it is often the case that done is better than perfect.

This approach’s weaknesses are that it will rock some people (which creates work for you and them), it will reduce your team or unit’s momentum (which creates work for you and them), and done repeatedly, it will create a culture of constant chaos, firefighting on a daily basis and that will have significant and lasting downstream consequences. These are significant downsides, my dudes.

If this is happening too often, you and your fellow leaders need to urgently go upstream and work on whatever’s creating too much constant change. Once or twice a year, a wave of changes is OK. Once or twice a quarter, really not good.

2. ABSORB AND SHIELD

This approach is the caricatured yang to ‘pull the band aid off’s’ ying.

Here you just absorb 99% of the change as a leadership. You take the hits, process the turbulence, and do your best to immunize your team or org from it.

That can mean withholding information. That can mean managing your own emotions and ego. That can mean needing to challenge your peers or boss to manage their emotions and ego too – not only are you holding the line yourself, you’re also holding others to hold the line.

This is NOT EASY. Holding the space and providing the aircover for the team is a silent kind of tiring.

But it’s sometimes what people want from their leaders, and I understand and appreciate why. ‘That’s why you get paid the big bucks’. Sometimes they don’t want to know, but they do want you to deal with it so that they can do their jobs and deliver the results they know you and others are depending on them for.

My best advice is to channel your anxieties and perhaps understandable desire to confide or vent, and direct those energies into a quiet dignity that you’re doing your best to do the right thing, and only talk to the others on your team who do rightfully know. (That and go upstream – sorry for repetition, but if you’re pissed off at having to absorb too much change, go and fix the causes).

The strengths of this approach are the downstream space it creates for your team. There’s no change for them to process if, in your pacing decision, you’ve decided to block all of the waves of disruption.

The weaknesses are that you may just have delayed rather than avoided the change, and that can be a hiding place for avoiding challenging issues that urgently need grasping. Maybe you pace it right. Or maybe it just came back twice as hard a month later. With this option you can also reduce your team’s trust of you, if they feel like you absorbed and withheld something they feel they should have known there and then. Just don’t take this option thinking it’s a universally good option. You might feel saintly, but life, leadership and scaling organizations ain’t that simple.

3. MIDDLE LANE COMFORT

The classic! Everyone’s absolute fave. It’s like the Margherita pizza of the pacing change world. Palatable, universal, utterly unremarkable. You pass on some of the change and you withhold, deflect or defer some of it for another day!

GENIUS, no?

And tbh probably your principle operating style today, and mine too.

As leaders we are constantly pacing change in this way. Saving some stuff up for bundles to deliver at a quarterly offsite or a well-thought-out team meeting or a face to face 1:1. Whilst also passing on the seamlessly shareable everyday changes – the small stuff, the incremental. Here, we’re in the middle lane – neither stressing the org with a never-ending wave of change, nor absorbing literally every possible change like a big friendly black hole.

The weaknesses of this option are in its ambivalence and mediocrity.

Sometimes, Option 1 is the must-do. Anything less than all at once is a poor leadership decision and patronizes the smart, resilient people we lead.

And sometimes, Option 2 will make the most sense. The team aren’t ready or it won’t help the org at this moment in time, which means absorbing every damn ounce of it is what’s needed.

So I guess the steer is to check that we’re not missing the benefits of 1 or 2 by only ever being that middle-lane driver.

One final note – on narratives and internal comms

As story-telling apes, the change is a narrative, and if you don’t provide a narrative for me to at least pick at, I’ll invent one my goddam self, so the communication piece here is massive. HOW you communicate the waves of change that you do pass on is critical. By video? In person? Town hall? With Q&A or without? In an email? The internal comms bit of this is very significant and worthy of a post on another day. What I will say for now is that communicating change – especially big waves of it – is very hard to do, no one will ever think you got it quite right, and the all-time best you can hope for is a majority of thumbs up – some grudging, some encouraging. But being real I will say that often you won’t get that, because in the environment of a scaling company, this shit is hard to get right. It is what it is, you guys. It is what it is.

In summary

You’re dealing with very challenging circumstances. It’s judgement and instinct, not science. The job here is not perfection, because it doesn’t exist. Instead it’s doing the best that you can with what you have. I do see pacing change as an integral aspect of leadership through growth and disruption. It is an incredibly influential part of our role. It’s another lever we have, another muscle for us to grow and flex.

We cannot determine when change comes and how much of it does, often. But we can set the context, the boundaries and the mood, and we can do our best to intelligently pace some of how and when some of it arrives. And in doing so, we can have a surprisingly powerful impact on the conditions for our teams and our selves to perform in.

Written on WordPress, whilst drinking cold black tea and listening to the Voodoo album by D’Angelo, which was inspired by the amazing Broken Records podcast conversation between Questlove, Rick Rubin and Malcolm Gladwell

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