THE BLOG
05/30/2013 05:58 pm ET | Updated Jul 30, 2013

Too Fast, Too Slow: The Challenge of Keeping Pace in Managing Change

One of the critical, and possibly fundamental, roles of leadership is managing change. Leadership is about guiding your team forward through a shifting environment. And determining the pace of transformation is one of the key ingredients of managing change.

Many organizations often judge the pace at which they do things based on internal measures and factors. Is our team ready for it? What experience have people had? How fast have things been done before? The pace you set might be your personal best as an organization, but that does not mean you are going to cross the finish line first.

As leaders we must measure the pace of transformation with an eye on competitiveness and that requires keeping a watchful eye on both internal and external measures of speed. Internal measures are helpful for assessing how much team development needs to occur, how much communication should be taking place, and how fast we can change.

But we must also ask ourselves... What are our competitors doing? What does the future look like? And who are our future competitors going to be? Some of this understanding comes through experience and an innate sense of what the future will bring. But more often, it requires talking to peers, reading the literature, and analyzing the data. It demands considering multiple scenarios and developing strategies to guide our organizations to a desired outcome through various assumptions.

It is only after we have thoroughly assessed internal and external factors that we can set the pace. And then we must ask -- how hard should we push? What is too fast and what is too slow over the long haul?

If leaders move too fast, they leave their communities behind. Their team becomes disenfranchised. They become disenfranchised. And they find themselves the lone person at the end of a long corridor with everyone else gathered at the other side of the building.

If leaders move too slowly, they lead their teams into failure, into non-competitiveness. Relevance is lost. The ability to grow is diminished.

So how do we strike the balance?

We have to make sure we monitor speed systematically. We keep our eyes open and our ears to ground. We must guard against insular thinking. The pace of transformation should be based on what our competitors are doing and how fast our global (not simply our local) environment is changing. The key to success as an organization is to get everyone moving forward to a similar beat. It is the challenge of keeping the pace.

Is there a danger of going too fast? Absolutely. In aeronautics, this dynamic is referred to as "max Q," when increasing speed and decreasing air density are at a maximum. Rockets, missiles, and aircraft can withstand max Q for only a limited time before they sustain structural damage.

Moving too fast inevitably increases the chances of error... and making mistakes, regardless of their severity, is risky for leaders. That's why many leaders prefer to err on the slow side of pace. It is safer, less disruptive, and less stressful. But unfortunately it also is more likely to place the organization in a non-competitive position, and may result in catastrophic organizational failure. Moving slow is safer in the short term but can be highly detrimental over the long haul, particularly in today's highly competitive global environment.

We recognize that leaders should strive to understand their organizational and community culture before fully implementing change. However, some leaders forget that this learning process is iterative and continuing, and that the desire for complete information should be adjusted for the level of urgency and the degree of need present. And we should remember that it easier to decelerate the pace of change than it is to accelerate it, particularly once change begins, before inertia and fatigue set in.

Understanding how to drive and manage change is critical to remaining competitive and relevant in a shifting environment. Leaders should ensure that their organization is moving fast enough to meet their competitors' challenges while minimizing the chance of error and alienation.

However, too often leaders prefer to err on the side of moving too slow, minimizing the degree of personal and professional risk, and in the process allowing important and necessary transformations to end incomplete, or worse, in failure. This tendency to move too slow, to take too few risks, is most notable in some of our nation's traditional strengths, including healthcare and higher education, who most frequently undertake change only at an incremental pace, threatening their local and global competitiveness.

While the slow pace at which these industries embrace change often, and rightfully, stems from their enormous complexity and the degree of diversity and engagement of their stakeholders, we also must acknowledge that unwillingness to change at the appropriate pace may arise from a lack of recognition that there are, or soon will be, viable and aggressive competitors to our current models of delivery. In addition there is a reluctance of governing and oversight bodies, and consequently of executive leadership, to accept the need for controlled risk in achieving timely change.

When leading an organization, regardless of industry, to continued competitiveness and relevance we can maintain a winning pace only if we recognize that we are in a race against both known and yet unknown competitive forces who will be more than willing to take on the risks necessary to succeed. Only then we will we succeed.