Leading Strategic Transformation

Posted by
July 13, 2021

Topic: Strategic Leadership

Written by Karin Blair


Calibrating the Pace and Degree of Change Each Day

I love the phrase, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” It’s good guidance for sustaining what’s working and leaving well enough alone. But in the dynamic and generative world of strategic leadership, we need to disrupt the status quo and inspire action before it’s clear the current business is (or will be) broken.  

Yet it’s easy to be lulled into the false comfort of short-term business performance and avoid the discomfort of game-changing strategic bets. Especially as a market and innovation leader.

As one client says, “As the market leader, you have everything to lose.”

Like when Kodak clung to film instead of transforming into digital. Not because they didn’t anticipate the market transition, or because they didn’t have the requisite capabilities.  What they seemed to lack was the leadership necessary to inspire strategic change while there was still time to act.

It’s an all-too-common gap in strategic leadership. Because the practice of game-changing strategic leadership is much harder than the theory.  

Imagine this …

  • Your head of R&D continues to develop product for what will eventually become the customer of the past. 
  • Your Commercial leaders double down on selling and marketing as they always have, trying to mitigate declines in core business revenue. 
  • Your colleagues cling to the known and familiar, despite agreeing that the customer of the future is fundamentally different—a vision laid out beautifully in your strategy presentation.  

Everyone agrees, in theory, to the directional roadmap. But the day-to-day execution of that strategy, and how far and how fast the organization needs to change to remain well-positioned in an ever-changing external environment, feels more difficult to grasp. 

Stewarding the strategic transformation of people and organizations is not as linear. You need to lead them through the gap between thinking and doing—between strategic thinking and strategic acting.  

Go too fast, and you leave everyone behind. Too slow, and it may happen too late.

In the day-to-day of strategic leadership, you wonder: What action is needed in this moment?

Calibrating the Change in the Day-to-Day: How Far, How Fast?

Let’s explore two experiences. Dan and Delilah are two different leaders in different organizations pondering this question in the day-to-day of their strategic leadership.  

They have a few things in common: Both have a clear strategic vision for the future of their respective organizations. Both are driven change-makers, and both are also relatively new to their position, making it harder to influence change with the “old guard.”

Dan had a meeting with his peers, the senior leaders of a large biotech organization. His goal for the meeting was to drive alignment on a shared vision for the future. But Dan’s colleagues struggled to see beyond the day-to-day operations, focusing on the world as it is instead of what it could be. They weren’t accustomed to Dan’s future-focused strategic thinking. Dan left the meeting disappointed, perceiving it as a failure. He feels he hasn’t moved the ball far enough, or fast enough.  

What is needed most at this moment in time?

Meanwhile, Delilah was preparing for an upcoming meeting with her boss and peers. Her boss asked the team to come with ideas for the future of the Commercial organization.  Delilah viewed this as a catalyzing opportunity to drive decisive action in a new direction—rethinking how work gets done. She was fired up.  

Then she realized her colleagues, who have been with the organization for decades, were approaching the request as another in a long line of reorganizations. Tweaking the dials at best, “moving the deck chairs around” at worst, with no meaningful impact on performance.

The pit in Delilah’s stomach grew in anticipation of the meeting. The thought of the most senior Commercial leaders of the organization dedicating two days to produce this type of incremental change felt untenable to her. She was left with a choice: should she accept the trajectory of her colleagues, or push for a major transformation?  

What is needed most at this moment in time?

Go too fast, and you leave everyone behind. Too slow, and it may happen too late.

Three Perspectives to Consciously Guide Your Choices

As you make these day-to-day calls, it can be helpful to consciously check in around the following three questions to guide your actions:

  1. What are the needs of the external environment?
  2. What is the organizational readiness for transformation?
  3. What are your underlying drivers and motivations?

Needs of the External Environment

This is perhaps the easiest of the three elements to evaluate, at least in theory. Assess the market window of opportunity for innovators and disruptors, or the magnitude of threat to incumbents.  

In my field, the timeline for when targeted medicine will fundamentally transform the practice of medicine continues to be debated. And the answer varies by application. No doubt, the Kodak leaders endlessly debated the timing and magnitude of the market transition to digital. 

Although the market window is most visible with hindsight, robust strategic thinking and monitoring will inform your view on the pace of market change to your envisioned future.  It will help guide you in the day-to-day of calibrating “how far, how fast.”

For Dan, the team was facing more opportunity than threat in the envisioned transformation—with a longer market window to create new sources of value. For Delilah, market leadership and business performance were under threat. A change in performance was more urgent.

Organizational Readiness  

After calibrating the pace and degree of change needed internally to adapt to the external environment, you will want to calibrate the amount of change the overall organization, and those you lead, can tolerate.

In the world of individual learning and development, there are three zones: the panic zone, the stretch zone, and the comfort zone.

At the edge of the comfort zone, many of us need a nudge into the inherent discomfort and resistance that comes with growth, development, change. 

At the edge of the panic zone, we need to slow down, take a step back, and give some space for confidence and capability to build. 

The same model can be applied to organizational transformation. We can’t just wait for the organization to be ready. Our job is to lead the organization out of the comfort zone without pulling it into the panic zone.

Clear in concept. And even in hindsight. But in this moment, what is needed most?  

Dan realized his drive to align his colleagues around an envisioned future state moved too far, too fast. Pushing harder meant shoving his colleagues into the panic zone. For this one meeting, building trust and capacity for greater strategic thinking was far enough.

In contrast, Delilah engaged her peers in one-to-one conversations to explore her ideas and vision. She learned her colleagues were ready and willing to propose more transformational changes to the organization. They had just fallen into the comfort zone. With a bit of a push, she secured their support and commitment to approach the meeting differently, to great effect. 

For Dan, grace and space were needed. For Delilah, challenge and inspiration. They adapted their approaches to spark forward momentum without losing connection to those they sought to influence and lead.

Your Underlying Drivers and Motivations

Perhaps the hardest of these perspectives to address is calibrating our own impatience and drive. 

As a strategic leader, you are constantly living in a natural tension between where you are and where you want to be. And our drive makes us want to close that gap as fast as possible.  But what is truly needed—both from the market and from those we lead—to effectively bring them along and engender true commitment to the future direction?

Delilah saw a series of dominos that must fall to realize her vision—the first being the meeting. She was convinced a transformational approach was required now.  

But how much of that assessment was a result of her own drive? In this instance, challenge and inspiration had the desired effect.  Which makes it even riskier for Delilah to keep pushing for change.  She has pushed too far in the past, sometimes to detrimental effect, and lost credibility to influence the change at all. 

Although it’s unlikely to occur in a single meeting, if we continually push “too far, too fast” we will lose trust and followership.

Dan initially felt his meeting was a failure. Yet, when we calibrated the need for change through these three perspectives, we realized his drive had overtaken him, and it was the source of his perception of failure. Even though he created space, his internal drive was still pushing harder than it needed to, making it difficult to be effective at securing the needed alignment and buy-in from his colleagues.  

Putting It All Together: How Far, How Fast—Today?

As transformational leaders, it is our job to build and sustain momentum toward the desired future state.  

And in day-to-day strategic leadership, you must decide how best to measure that forward momentum—today, tomorrow, this week. For Delilah, the momentum was, and needed to be, a decisive and direction-changing meeting. Dan, on the other hand, recalibrated his drive in order to build trust and rapport and open up strategic thinking and diverse perspectives.  

Both have forward momentum to them. And both will wonder:

  • Did I change the organization fast enough?
  • Did I push too hard to effect the needed change?

There is no knowing. We only have each day to experiment, and to adapt. One of the many balancing acts of strategic leadership.  

Push and stretch today, pull back and let things emerge tomorrow. Reconsider your measure of forward momentum. What is needed today?  

Transformational change. One day at a time.


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