Change always happens mid-stream but where does it start?
The low point for me as a teen drummer arrived early on when I prematurely joined a band. One night on stage I started horribly wrong. The band leader quickly realized the situation was unrecoverable and simply turned around and yelled “Just!… Stop!... Playing!”
Change must happen mid-song or mid-course or it’s not change. It’s never easy, never a straight path, never ego-centric, and never perfectly articulated. Change is utilitarian, brash, unrefined, blurry, audacious… Messy.
These characteristics make it problematic to consider the topic of change in terms of formula or “steps.” In my experience finding a successful path to change is often elusive even in the face of pressing need. (If it were easy, we’d all be seeing & embracing change far more frequently!) There is, however, a singular characteristic that I believe exists in all change: The crisis point. This is the point where someone has a realization that what is happening right now is incompatible with long-term success. Critically, too, this realization must result in action.
What’s a “crisis point” though? It needn’t be dramatic or external — it’s simply a catalyst — a moment in time where the need for change becomes overwhelmingly apparent. The larger and/or less change-ready the team, the greater the perceived crisis will need to be. However, skilled leaders can sometimes speak to the need for change in such clear and compelling terms they actually create a sort of “identity crisis point” on the spot. Likewise, talented leaders will co-opt larger already-acknowledged challenges to add urgency to their mission and increase the velocity of change.*
(Almost invariably there will be one team member who will speak up with some change-resisting question like, “If it ain’t broke why fix it?” The more compelling the crisis and proposed solution, the fewer and sillier these objections will be.)
In 2018 I joined a software startup that was struggling. The team had been decimated by low moral and the work backlog was knee-deep and scatter-brained. The handful of developers remaining had lost sight of their mission and were doing more each day to create technical debt than they were to advance the strategy. Worse still, this had been happening for long enough that a culture of pretending to work had set in.
We were sunk without significant, dramatic, expedient change. The crisis was acute (to me at least) but not strongly felt or perhaps even recognized by anyone else. We were off beat, I knew it, and I knew it’d take something dramatic to alter the course.
I marched out of my office, loudly got everyone’s attention and told them to stop working. Next I explained as clearly and concisely as I could why our current approach represented a significant crisis. I kept at it until I was reading in everyone’s body language that I had connected — that they saw what I saw; we were failing ourselves.
A significant battle toward change is won once the nature of a crisis is widely recognized. Attempting to spur change without this recognition is, similarly, very dangerous and can compound the difficulties by providing detractors a stronger defense for the status quo. I’ve learned to be cautious with raising a crisis, preferring to wait until I’m confident that the case can be undeniably delivered and received.
With the crisis acknowledged, transitioning to the solution is natural and urgent.
I went to the whiteboard and wrote out the mission and the biggest single tactical goal, explaining that unless the individual efforts contribute tangibly to this goal they are counter productive. In fact, I continued, if you can’t find a way to be productive or aren’t sure how I don’t even want you to be seated at your desk pretending to work; Just!… Stop!… Playing!… And we’ll figure it out together.
This crisis point was the where the team began a 6 month turn towards a redefined notion of success that included a no nonsense work ethic. The result was, eventually, the company (& product) being acquired.
Recognizing the importance of these crisis-point moments after they happen is something we’re all able to do casually; hindsight being 20/20. Seeing the need for these turning points as they become necessary is harder. The closer to real-time the recognition of problems are, the stronger your advantage will be. (Developing this ability is an entire craft in itself.) Key to recognizing change quickly is holding on to a strong and articulate mission. The stronger and clearer the sense of mission, the easier it is to see the smallest crack between the present problem and the ideal future.
Mark Ovaska is a long time business leader and turn-around artist with deep experience in technical SaaS products. Recovering journalist.
* The art of creating a crisis out of an adjacent situation can be seen in well known speeches by great men. Martin Luther King’s peroratio “I have a dream!” is proceeded by a much longer description of a century of American bigotry and injustice. Churchill’s “We will fight!” likewise was proceeded by the acknowledgment that the Allies were not only losing the war but that it would get much worse before it got better. The exordium of JFK’s “space race” speech created a crisis out of America’s falling behind the Russians, arguing in short that being first was what made his country American and anything less was failure. The key ingredients of these speeches and the yardstick for ensuring success is to be, as writer Anthony Trendl says, “The right [person] that delivered the right words to the right people in the right place at the right time.”