THE BLOG
12/28/2012 04:38 pm ET | Updated Feb 27, 2013

Change Management 101: How Businesses Win With Innovation

Among the most frequently-cited topics in the business world today is strategic innovation. Leaders and managers often wonder how to deal with change management since the world is constantly in flux and everything is changing at a brisk pace -- including markets, best practices and customer expectations. The challenge: It often seems that as soon as we wrap our heads around one new idea, it changes shape, or something completely new comes down the creek and we're left reeling. So how can we as management executives and leaders possibly stay ahead of the curve in a world, and commercial marketplace, that moves this quickly?

Fortunately, there's no need for crystal balls, tarot cards, or cloying incense. The irony is that most any enterprise can see where trends are headed long before they come down the pike: The trick is rather to have the good sense to step aside so you don't get run over by them. Start by implementing processes, platforms and people-centric solutions that allow you to stay abreast of rising trends and topics, then proactively develop, implement and test new methodologies, products and services to address these emerging areas of concern. From there, observe the responses prompted by these solutions and react, iterating accordingly as you go. That makes it a bit easier to adapt. Ultimately, it pays to be proactive: It's wiser to stock a fire extinguisher on-hand before the roof catches flame then finding yourself having to sprint for one while the house is burning down around you.

While such observations may sound trite, the challenge is that successfully addressing and adapting to strategic innovation requires implementing a culture of participation -- not necessarily the type of culture built into most Industrial Age organizations. But it's key to remember that executives, managers and front line employees alike seldom have trouble spotting emerging innovations. More often, troubles surround their ability to successfully communicate these opportunities and challenges to upper management, and obtain the organizational buy-in needed to quickly and concisely respond to these potential hazards. As a business leader, to succeed, it's important to think of change management as an ongoing, not occasional, activity that should be ingrained in any enterprise from day one. Organization-wide, you need to open yourself up to the possibility of change instead of steeling yourself against it, and both flatten lines of communication and optimize leadership, decision-making and action-based hierarchy to allow for flexible and powerful responses to rising areas of concern.

Important to keep in mind: The market, and industry, is constantly moving around us. Many leaders harbor an inherent fear of or resistance to change, partially because we're afraid that the move we make might not be the right one. However, if we want to succeed, it's vital to note that freezing up is not an option -- if the path is constantly shifting in front of us, doing so is tantamount to hitting cruise control while steering headlong off the road. Think of running your business like playing a game of football: Yards will be gained, yards will be lost, and you'll often get clobbered -- all that matters is moving the ball down field in the aggregate. Strategic innovation requires that you constantly be trying, failing and learning from mistakes -- market-leading products, services and organizations are seldom born fully matured. All develop over time, as further experience, information and insight is gained, allowing us to make better and more informed choices.

The key here: Decision makers need to make decisions, even if they don't have perfect information. Even the most successful organizations and managers in the world are never 100 percent sure how outcomes will play out -- and sometimes, they're even aware that first attempts may well be disastrous. As Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz famously stated, "No good plan survives first contact with the enemy." In other words, the second that you hit the battlefield, every variable can change. So to succeed, you need to be prepared to meet those potential changes, and respond in kind. To this extent, you need to experiment, prototype, gain hands-on learning and -- whether speaking from an organizational or personal level -- constantly be striving to acquire the experience, skills, contacts, insights and connections that will help diversify and strengthen your outlook as a result of each successive attempt. So long as you're doing so strategically and in measured, cost-effective fashion with an eye towards eventual success, short-term failure can actually pave the way to success. In the same way that early prototype versions of high-tech products lead to polished end products, so too can nascent leadership strategies and approaches eventually grow into powerful ways of addressing developing topics and trends.

From a broad level, it pays to encourage employees to speak up and contribute, open channels of communication, and create incubators within any given organization. Make sure that leaders at all levels can communicate with one another and share ideas. Keep up with emerging trends, and once you have a better idea of what's coming down the pike, you can prototype with new strategies, new products, and new processes designed to piggyback on or steer safely clear of them. And ultimately, keep your organization's end goals in mind -- you can lose individual battles, but still win the war. Don't be afraid of failures, as long as they're measured, strategic, and cost-effective -- after all, said failures are the best way to learn. Apple's iPod didn't spring from the blueprints and off the assembly belt in one smooth motion: Countless experimentation and mistakes were involved before the company got the design right.

As a leader, give yourself permission to speak up, try and do, and give others within your organization permission to do so, too. Don't allow employees to keep quiet, or keep their heads down -- encourage their contributions and insights. And when all's said and done with an initiative, don't worry if it isn't perfect -- instead, ship your product or venture and see what happens, iterating as you go. Vital to recall: It pays to have back-up plans, keep experimenting new approaches, and leave yourself enough headroom to maneuver as new feedback and information is gained. You don't need an industry prophet, fortune teller or high-powered management consultant to realize the secret: Constant motion and flexibility are how you stay ahead of the curve.