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Leading Teams through Change at the Speed of Business

How to guide your team amid uncertainty, without losing momentum.

A quick scan of PwC’s 2015 CEO Survey reveals that one management mantra has become a reality: Change is now truly a constant process, not an event. Of the chief executives interviewed, 51 percent plan to enter into a new strategic alliance or joint venture in 2015, often with a rival or a firm in an industry other than their own. In an increasingly VUCA world (“volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity” — the military acronym has been borrowed by business executives), the demands on managers are enormous.

Following a merger, one leader I work with was asked to integrate new teams six times in nine months, until her department began calling themselves “the island of misfit toys.” It’s not surprising. According to the 2015 Edelman Trust Barometer, 51 percent of respondents believe that the pace of business innovation is too fast, which contributed to declines in the level of trust in business in 16 of the 27 countries surveyed. Back in 2009, Jim Collins warned in How the Mighty Fall that the greatest risk to companies was no longer complacency but overreach; frenetic, undisciplined change that goes beyond what leaders can manage effectively. Many teams are faced with so much reshuffling, they find themselves chasing zigzagging priorities — working hard, but without building the momentum they need to win.

The trouble is, our approach to change has itself not really changed over time: Our instinct is still to take an event-driven process and try to execute it more and more quickly. We tend to drive change initiative by initiative, and lose track of the confusion this can create for teams doing the work. Leaders admonish themselves to “communicate, communicate, communicate,” but worry their message isn’t getting across. Others convene team-building activities but struggle with how long the process takes. Some teams can walk away fuzzy about the implications for their work. “Time will tell,” said one team after meeting their new leader. “We just have to wait and see if things are really going to change.”

But people generally want to commit and deliver. When they get stuck in hesitation or churn, it is usually because (a) the changes asked of them do not make sense, (b) they are not convinced of the opportunity to improve, or (c) they do not feel they are valued. It’s up to the leader to avoid these common pitfalls by making change part of normal, everyday life. The following strategies will help you keep everyone engaged and focused as the mission evolves.

Weave changes into a narrative. Connect the dots between past initiatives and what is under way now, to help your team make sense of the bigger picture and where they fit. Be frank about changes of direction and how your thinking is evolving over time.

Frame the challenge. People are most committed when they are most needed. Rather than laying out a fully baked vision, sketch a rough outline of the future you see and then invite the team to step up to the challenges in getting there.

Tell the team’s story. Asking a team to share their journey shows respect for their contributions and allows you to build on any projects or insights under way. Sharing individual stories helps build trust and relationships, and reveals talents.

Stay on top of the basics. Don’t leave employees in limbo about their roles just because everything is changing. From Day One, everyone should understand where to focus “for now.” (Of course, when change is constant, “for now” is all there is.)

Don’t leave employees in limbo about their roles just because everything is changing.

Design convincing experiences. Teams move into action when they are convinced an opportunity is real. Involve employees in vivid, firsthand activities, such as field trips or customer visits, to help them see how a change is a no-brainer.

Welcome questions. We often view questions as resistance. But if you want your team to take ownership of a new direction, it needs to make sense to them. Making it safe to ask questions is the fastest way to get there — and also helps you gauge your team’s understanding.

Clarify the economics. Creating a simple model of your key business drivers can help you communicate the logic of multiple changes and target appropriate measures, while building business acumen on your team.

Update your shared goals. Once new directions and opportunities make sense, have the team participate in creating or revising their vision, goals, and milestones, so everyone knows how they connect to the mission. 

Realign the work. Getting concrete about how a change affects the team’s day-to-day work moves you out of abstractions into action. It also helps you identify what to stop doing and how you can leverage one another’s strengths. One team created shared guidelines and ranked their priorities against them. Another team used a shared calendar to integrate their messaging.

Update mutual commitments. To translate insight into action, be specific about what you are asking team members to commit to and what they need from you in order to deliver. Clarify team “rules of engagement,” such as “How will we hold one another accountable?”

Sustain a disciplined focus. Mock up a dashboard of the measures your team will review at regular check-ins. As new initiatives emerge, be ready to negotiate expectations, so you can deliver on your existing vision and goals.
The payoff of this process is momentum, for your team and your company. Teams with a routine for change can be both flexible and coordinated — the way a flock of birds or a school of fish pivots dynamically or a pit crew is prepared to improvise any repair. As a leader, when you develop a routine for aligning or realigning a team as part of your day-to-day management style, you help people anticipate change and step up to bigger and stronger commitments. That “island of misfit toys” I mentioned above? When the leader embraced several of these strategies, the results were unmistakable. Her team grew so skilled at change that they began to actively solicit mergers with other groups.

Elizabeth Doty

Elizabeth Doty is a former lab fellow of Harvard University’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, founder of Leadership Momentum, and director of the Erb Institute’s Corporate Political Responsibility Taskforce at the University of Michigan.

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