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People, process, projects and the dynamics of change

Cynthia Stuckey
August 24, 2015

Thanks to structural reforms undertaken in the early 1980s, the mining boom, and strong demand from its trading partner China, Australia has enjoyed a stable economy over the last 20 years, resulting in uninterrupted annual growth, low inflation and low unemployment.

However, in recent years the tide has changed. Commodity prices have fallen, investment in the resources sector has declined and international mergers and acquisitions have resurged, all culminating in slowed growth and a less stable economy. Australia, like many other economies before, has entered a VUCA world—one influenced by increased volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity.

While Australia’s economy is still doing well by world standards, it is going through change and requires a fresh focus from its leadership so that it can adapt and grow with the change around it. But where do Australian leaders start after so many years of smooth sailing?

Change and uncertainty is the new norm and to ensure Australian business leaders are not only coping but thriving in this new environment three perspectives should be taken into account:

  1. Focusing on both people and process to drive pace: leaders need to focus on two sides of the same leadership coin—people and process—to drive pace in a VUCA context.
  2. Reinforcing people leadership factors: as the pace of change accelerates and the number of strategic projects proliferates, creating clarity, building unity and fostering agility become essential to help your people stay grounded.
  3. Leading the change process through an adaptive approach to execution: your implementation process needs to take account of VUCA challenges and therefore needs to be adaptive and owned by the team.

Business leaders need to focus on both people and process to drive pace.

The challenges of a VUCA world

In today’s VUCA world, business leaders are faced with four key challenges they must overcome to ensure their organisations remain competitive, including:

1. Volatility: The rate, amount and magnitude of change impacting a business which can vary drastically at short notice. Volatility can make it difficult to plan, making it important to regularly check assumptions as strategies are implemented.

Leaders need to scan for triggers and early warning signs to help them proactively react to unexpected and unpredictable events and burnout, as well as cultivate experience to better understand and address the next round of change around the corner.

2. Uncertainty: The amount of uncertainty inherent in issues and events facing a business.

Leaders are unable to predict future issues and events because they lack clarity surrounding challenges and their current and future outcomes. Uncertainty can result in an over-reliance on past experiences and yesterday’s solutions, requiring leaders to find ways to gather new data sources.

3. Complexity: The amount of dependency and interactive effect of multiple factors and drivers, which can be overwhelming to process.

Complex interactivity requires non-linear thinking and flexible and scalable solutions. Leaders need to be adaptive in their thinking and process implementation, and use filters to focus on the most critical components. The aim is to get to the simplicity behind the complexity.

4. Ambiguity: The degree to which information, situations and events can be interpreted in multiple ways.

Ambiguity increases doubt, slows decision-making and results in missed opportunities and external threats. It requires leaders thinking through and diagnosing issues and events from multiple perspectives, using a range of information sources to provide feedback and allow experimentation.

To minimise the impact of VUCA challenges in their environment, business leaders need to understand, encourage and develop a strategic speed approach.

The need for speed

Strategic speed is the sustained ability to reduce time to value and increase value over time with respect to strategic initiatives. In short, the time in which a particular strategy (e.g. an employee engagement or change strategy) is planned, implemented and returns positive results.

Speed is a key differentiator when implementing change and strategy, because there is a need to return to a state of stability or improved function as quickly as possible to enable higher performance, productivity and profitability.

However, when dealing with change nothing is certain, and systems and structures can become disjointed and misaligned from a business’ values and overall direction. As everything gets faster and more fragmented, it is tempting for leaders to focus only on speed or pace when trying to adapt and implement strategic initiatives. The problem with pace is that it is dependent on both process and people.

It is fine to agree a process for implementation and engage the people around the process, and then have the team agree and flex their pace in line with agreed targets, however if you start with pace or speed you will need to review your process and re-engage your people each time you update the implementation plan schedule.

The former approach helps the team manage and take ownership for their speed through active involvement, the latter approach imposes speed for which you need to retroactively build commitment. In a VUCA world, the latter approach will seriously impact your ability to sustain speed.

To achieve strategic speed—implementing strategies both quickly and well—leaders need to ensure their people are the key ingredient in the formula by arming them with the capabilities to cope with constant change and encouraging them to own the process.

By putting their people at the forefront, leaders will be able to achieve faster execution and return on the strategy they are implementing and drive strategic speed throughout the business.

The speed limit

The drive for pace in times of volatility often occurs when there is lack of oversight of the complete change or strategic agenda, resulting in little or no prioritisation or discipline in managing stakeholders.

As a result, little attention is given to completing priorities before adding more, meaning those impacted by the changes not only struggle to keep up but also don’t understand what success looks like. In effect, smaller individual tasks and activities become blurred as they roll into the next, snowballing and gathering pace as they slip down the slope that comes with solely focusing on process and not the people that roll it out.

As leaders try to do more with less, they often miss the opportunity to involve, include, develop buy-in and communicate with their key stakeholders, primarily their own workforce.

In organisations where multiple initiatives are in play, VUCA challenges can act as a divergent lens, creating a level of confusion and complexity that is experienced by all. In order to keep momentum, but ensure pace stays within the speed limit, leaders need to act as the lens to refocus initiatives on business results by concentrating on people, process and pace equally.

Tips for driving pace through focusing on process and people:

  • Engage people early to help select and agree process and map it out.
  • Have people involved in identifying the risks and contingencies and regularly review and update them.
  • Have people map the change through the VUCA lens to identify how each element may impact their change or strategy implementation and then consider what they can do mitigate the impact of each element.
  • Have the team look for signs that results are falling off and have them instigate a review of the process to update it and rebuild momentum; encourage ownership of the process.
  • Explain strategic speed at a fundamental level and ask the team what would help them.

Once leaders are also focusing on their people, they will then be able to reinforce people leadership factors.

Cynthia Stuckey
Cynthia Stuckey is the managing director of The Forum Corporation in the Asia-Pacific. Forum is a recognised global leader in linking leadership development and sales effectiveness training to strategic business objectives.
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