Questions Change Agents Must Ask Themselves

Hard times best test and bring out the mettle of a leader. While true leaders rise to the task, conviction of the ‘lesser’ leaders wobble as organizational performance fluctuates and they find themselves inadequate in dealing with crises. It’s not unusual to feel the jitters when there is little control over industry behavior and market growth. However, distinguished leaders identify opportunities and build advantages even when the going gets tough.
This is the also the time to rethink long-held strategic assumptions, question conventional industry wisdom, and stretch limits t0 innovate and stay afloat. Einstein had famously stated, “Problems cannot be solved at the same level of awareness that created them.” Hence when times are different, things have to be thought differently and done differently to yield different though encouraging outcomes. And worthy leaders prepared to take on the challenge must also do some soul-searching and answer the following questions:
1. Are there opportunities you observe that your competitors don’t?
IDEO’s Tom Kelly, expert on innovation and organization design, is known to quote Proust, “The real act of discovery consists not in finding new lands but in seeing with new eyes.” In a world dominated by ‘me-too’ practices, worthy leaders strive to go beyond competition by embracing novel and ‘one-of-a kind’ ideas that redefine the rules of the game.
2. Do you have ideas about where to look for new ideas?
While dealing with problems and norms of a certain industry, leaders could also examine ideas and practices that have concurrently existed elsewhere. A staple idea of one industry that migrates to another could prove to be a game-changer if suitably appropriated.
3. Do you know who would miss you most and why, if you were to go out of business tomorrow?
Jim Collins, in his book Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap … and Others Don’t raises the above question. Commonplace as it may appear, leaders need to identify and focus on this group of customer/stakeholders, realigning the organizational agenda.
4. What are you ‘most’ at?
While it is not possible to be ‘pretty good’ at everything, there could be areas you are ‘most’ at – say most efficient, most affordable, most accessible, most value-for-money and the like. Identifying and working on that can be helpful. There was a time when organizations were comfortable “in the middle of the road” as most customers were to be found there. “Today the middle of the road is the road to ruin”.
5. Will your customers be able to live without you?
Yet another downside of a crisis or change is to become irreplaceable to customers. Gallup researchers present a hierarchy of elements that connect companies to their customers, such as confidence, integrity, pride, and passion. To test passion, for instance, a question as elementary as “Can you imagine a world without this product?” was put to people. It emerged that if customers can, they probably will.
6. Did you stop to think how your organization’s history can help shape its future?
Creativity, in psychologist Jerome Bruner’s views, involves “… figuring out how to use what you already know in order to go beyond what you already think.” Leaders with a creative mind revisit the past without disavowing it. From a critical study of what’s come before ideas of what could come next may be birthed.
7. Are different customers treated differently?
In a fickle and see-sawing marketplace, a measure of an organization’s commitment to its most valued customers is reflected by how fearlessly it sidesteps “customers who are not central to its mission”. Not all are meant to be one’s customers, appealing to them all as a homogenous group doesn’t help either.
8. Are you harnessing the capabilities of your human resource appropriately?
Unusual times call for unusual means and measures. With a changed mindset smart leaders unhesitatingly turn to potential contributors beyond conventional sources. There are hidden geniuses and unsung heroes in most organizations. Ground-breaking projects can be initiated prudently mining their potential, as also tapping the ‘collective genius’ of the business ecosystem.
9. Have you remained consistent in your commitment to change?
While some organizations are risk-averse and resist change, others change way too often, (mis)guided by new-fangled ideas/trends or changing management fads. Leaders aspiring to make deep-seated change ensure that even in uncertain times, organizational priorities, goals and values remain consistent.
10. Are you keeping pace with the fast-changing world and learning as fast?
In today’s volatile business-scape where the sand shifts and games change in no time, discerning leaders watch their step and adapt themselves embracing new learning. They are insatiable learners. They stretch their horizons and evolve as individuals so that their organizations can also do the same. Leaders with a difference, who are change agents too, have the nerves to deal with abstruse problems, head and heart to acknowledge there may not be ready answers to all the questions, but eyes to dream/delineate a new strategic vision and path.

Based on HBR South Asia OnPoint Feb – July 2015 The 10 Questions Every Change Agent Must Answer by Bill Taylor, Cofounder and Founding Editor of Fast Company magazine. He is also the author of the path-breaking book Practically Radical.

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