February 29, 2024

The Art and Science of Change Part 1 (TPL Insights #211)

By Rob Andrews

by Gary Skarke and Linda Wilson

After 20+ years of Change by any other name (e.g., AI, disruptive technology, digital transformation), organizations and their leaders have recognized that the ability to successfully master change is a core competitive competency. Business as usual in today’s world implies — demands — the ability to anticipate, view, review, and respond to change as part of the everyday operating framework.

Recognizing and acting upon change requirements effectively are two different things. Leaders and managers continue to struggle to win the Change Game, instead feeling overwhelmed and paralyzed, looking for quick fixes, or charging off into flurries of activity in the hopes that any action is preferable to doing nothing.

While working with a variety of organizations and leaders over the past 40 years, we have observed that successful change contains elements of both Art and Science. Organizations need a balance of vision and action. In marketing and sales, for example, it takes a lot of vision, creativity, and intuition — “Art” — to fulfill these functions well. But we can also appreciate the “Science” involved in managing the actions effectively — how to ensure that marketing and sales are repeatable processes, and how to measure results and assess performance.

The Change Game is no different. We need both Science and Art in somewhat equal parts to realize optimal (almost any) change. If there are no “artists,” we may not be able to “see and feel” the Big Picture as the organization responds to its environment. Insightful, charismatic leaders become tremendous forces who can artfully intuit big obstacles and motivate the troops to go for big goals.

Yet if we have no “scientists,” we may not be able to stay focused on the disciplined, task-oriented engineering of change that, in the end, gets things done. “Mr. Science” leaders can be excellent at focusing organizational attention on the many interdependencies that must coordinate to produce desired results for change efforts. Anyone who has “been there, done that” knows that in the case of change, the devil really is in the details. The point is that we need both Science and Art in leadership to master the Change Game.

The Smarts and Guts of Leadership

Leadership is a natural place to start our discussion. Leaders set the overall direction, target, and strategy for achieving goals. Tone at the top is the key driver for the other discussion areas to follow: culture, vision & strategy, and action planning.

Art & Science of Change: Leadership
You’ve expressed your commitment to change your organization. Now…are you willing to fire a top producer to make it happen? To promote a potential competitor to the top spot in the company?

Where have all the great leaders gone? It takes a combination of guts, vision, and motivation (creative, artistic acts) to get the organization to focus and act (scientific activities).

The biggest challenge for any leader is to find a chain of “change leaders” in the organization. Unlike the military model, the “new leaders of change” do not command and control. They mobilize by coaching and by communicating, communicating, communicating, communicating, and then communicating some more. They communicate in many ways – and the cliché phrase that actions always speak louder than words was never truer. This theme has its roots in war and politics, where leaders and heroes needed to be mobilizers, motivators, strategic organizers, resource managers, and fierce adversaries, all in one package! When the smoke cleared, however, the only measure of performance was whether you won the election or passed the legislation or won the war.

Today’s corporate leaders have taken on the mantle of mythological heroes of yesteryear. The biggest battle left is for domination of the commercial marketplace. Leaders will need all the smarts and guts (the art and science) available in their organizations — and in their network of customers and suppliers — to make it happen. This may indeed be one of the biggest leadership challenges in history.

This leadership challenge may be expressed by dramatic action. For instance, the courage to fire a good friend or company favorite whose skills are not going to get you where you need to go tests the mettle of any leader. Equally difficult is the self-confidence to bring on another leader who may be the biggest competitor for a coveted career title. Yet actions like this are required every day for organizations to win…and they are hallmarks of the art and science underlying the new leadership of change.

The best way to grow and fine tune leadership skills is to find worthy mentors and/or look to history to identify outstanding individuals to study. More likely, those deserving of praise are the unsung heroes who make the right choices and do the right things without fanfare. For inspiration, here’s a list of some of the 10 greatest CEOs of all time according to ChatGPT.

  • Jack Welch (General Electric) is known for his transformative leadership style and for turning GE into one of the world’s most valuable companies.
  • Steve Jobs (Apple) co-founded Apple and played a pivotal role in revolutionizing the technology and entertainment industries with products like the iPhone, iPad, and iTunes.
  • Jeff Bezos (Amazon) founded Amazon and built it into one of the largest and most influential companies globally, revolutionizing e-commerce and cloud computing.
  • Andy Grove (Intel) served as CEO of Intel and played a critical role in the company’s success, leading it to become the world’s leading microprocessor manufacturer.
  • Warren Buffett (Berkshire Hathaway) is primarily known as an investor, but his leadership and long-term vision have made Berkshire Hathaway one of the most successful conglomerates in the world.
  • Bill Gates (Microsoft) co-founded Microsoft and played a crucial role in the development of the personal computer industry, making Microsoft one of the dominant software companies.
  • Mary Barra (General Motors) became CEO of GM in 2014 and has led the company through significant transformations, focusing on innovation and sustainability.
  • Alan Mulally (Ford) is credited with turning around Ford during the 2008 financial crisis through strategic restructuring and a focus on quality and customer satisfaction.
  • Indra Nooyi (PepsiCo) served as the CEO of PepsiCo and led the company’s global expansion and diversification, emphasizing healthier product offerings and sustainable practices.
  • Satya Nadella (Microsoft) became the CEO of Microsoft in 2014 and has successfully guided the company’s transformation towards cloud computing and artificial intelligence.

Cultural Trick or Treat – Rules, Rewards, and Punishment

Art & Science of Change: Corporate Culture

Employees have their own “insightful” interpretations of how your company “feels” to them. But, more importantly, how would your customer characterize your company?

  1. Paralyzed with fear. “Sales reps can’t even make the simplest decisions without consulting someone else.”
  2. Leaderless and moving from crisis to crisis. “Their product pricing last year seemed to depend on which way the wind was blowing.”
  3. Innovative, creative, and proactive. “Their sales associates know my company’s needs almost before I do.”
  4. Flexible and adaptive to my needs. “Even if our design specs change, it never puts an unreasonable kink in the delivery schedule.”
  5. A passive, entrenched bureaucracy. “They’re worse to deal with than the DMV.”

Too many believe culture to be the unknowable, the untouchable, and the undefinable. Culture is defined and expressed by the 1001 small acts that leaders throughout the organization do and allow every day. By its nature, culture is made up of the unwritten rules by which the organization truly makes operating decisions. It creates or removes/moves virtual mountains within organizations.

A glimpse of your culture can be gained through the eyes of a new hire. For every procedure and policy that is explained, the underlying culture may require adding the phrase “but this is how it really works…”.

Leaders create culture by their actions and their rewards. If leaders want to take 500 of the 1001 steps to change culture in one leap, they align the performance management system (the scientific part) with the vision for change and strategic direction (the art part) …and watch what happens. Sales organizations do this all the time – and it works! We just don’t often apply those same, proven principles to the rest of the organization.

Sales organizations tend to be entrepreneurially driven – and usually reflect an artistic, charismatic style of sales leadership. People in sales functions are used to high impact changes – new products, new promotions, and new packaging are constants. In functional areas unused to high impact change, leaders may elect to take the 501 other steps one at a time – a more scientific approach. This sequential approach has less impact, but it is necessary in many cases and a complementary approach to high impact change.

Caveat emptor: Under-performing mission-critical functions are usually not good candidates for low impact change. Desperate situations require swift, bold actions. Jumpstart a culture change with high-profile projects, people, and performance goals.

If an organization is paralyzed with fear, then the leader must allow the organization to take control of its destiny – by participating in the direction that it takes. In addition, the leaders must learn to coach rather than terrorize with rules, rewards, and punishments.

If the organization is leaderless and moving from crisis to crisis, then a leader must emerge to provide focus and energy and to reward prudent risk-taking based on the organization’s direction. Rewarding rudderless actions and behavior produces continuous crisis management.

If the organization is passive and ineffectual, with an entrenched bureaucracy, then the focus and rewards should shift to timely results rather than endless activity. Of course, processes and approvals need to be revamped.

Once the culture is changing, the key is to increase the momentum. Leaders will need to create a controlled stampede with ever-increasing speed. Culture can be the dynamic force for change, but it has incredible initial inertia that can only be impacted with clear and well-communicated decisions on rules, rewards, and punishments (hence the performance management system).

Culture needs a change-as-you-go-emphasis. With each changed element, the culture shifts for better or worse. Culture is a lagging indicator of the organization’s health. Unfortunately, there is not yet available a single injection for total cultural wellness…but there is a course of treatment (the scientific part) for those leaders courageous enough to take the first shot themselves (the dramatic part).

Culture and leadership have been the downfall of the former CEO of Uber, Travis Kalanick.  His toxic leadership style permeated the company with sexual harassment, poor treatment of the revenue generators – the drivers (berating a driver on video), and price gouging richer customers, among other issues. Contrast the CEO of LinkedIn, Jeff Weiner, who sold the company to Microsoft.  Jeff was known as a compassionate leader who led his company to an amazing integration with one of the top tech companies in the world.

We will continue the discussion of the Art and Science of Change in our next article on Vision/Strategy and Action Planning. We would be delighted to discuss your change initiatives and see how they can be even more successful.