Considering a Quick Strategic Pivot? Take a Deep Breath and Slow Down.

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Jul 16, 2020

Unsurprisingly, the COVID-19 crisis — and the resulting economic chaos — have companies scrambling to revise their business strategies in an effort to minimize long-term damage and keep up with an unpredictable marketplace.

While a strong sense of urgency and an attempt to make rapid progress are admirable, a knee-jerk reaction can be impulsive and, ultimately, unproductive. 

If leaders are too quick to pivot, they’re likely to run up against significant noise and resistance that they aren’t prepared to address. Hasty directional changes can result in roadblocks and delays, as well as employee engagement and retention issues that require an HR clean-up crew further down the road.

However, with advance planning, HR can be best-positioned to convene a small steering group and create a pivot plan. Here’s how.

Identify a Cross-Functional Team

You have the most holistic and objective view of your organization, so it’s your responsibility to curate a team of no more than three to six key business leaders. They should be from across the company, including the leaders of major business areas and revenue streams, as well as your finance, IT and operations leads. This approach will ensure that you have the customer/commercial point of view, as well as the key functions. 

Once convened, you’ll need to quickly clarify the group’s immediate objectives and measures of success on one page — literally, on one page. If your objectives are too vague, broad, and unmeasurable, you will fail. 

To perform meaningful work together, this team will need to have a candid discussion about hopes, fears, and vulnerabilities. And, team members will need to agree upon a simple set of working norms and a conflict/decision-making framework. Consider using Edward DeBono’s Six Thinking Hats or the Kantor 4 Player Model, both of which will help leaders ensure they are always considering multiple perspectives, ensuring all parties have a voice in co-creating a well-rounded solution.

It may sound basic, but taking the time to level-set with this team is crucial. Spell out what specifically you are trying to solve for, and why. Many executives believe that advance expectation- and norm-setting is fluffy and unnecessary; they just want to come together and start problem-solving. Although that urgency can be tempting, you must resist. If you curate a powerful group that dives into work without having an open dialogue about what they’re trying to accomplish, they will ultimately waste time working down different paths or circling around decisions that need to happen swiftly. Or they will confuse their teams and create unnecessary noise and anxiety in the system. 

Take the Pulse of the Current State

This is another seemingly obvious but often overlooked point. You cannot pivot if you don’t really understand where you are today and what’s happening around you. Your team must have a picture of the current state that is “clear enough” — let’s be honest, nothing in today’s world is entirely clear. This includes an up-to-date pulse on:

  • Key performance metrics. Where are you succeeding and where are you failing right now as a business? Your CFO and business leads can answer these questions.
  • Industry trends and challenges. What are your customers/consumers doing, saying, needing? What are your competitors doing or not doing? What new or different competitors are starting to emerge? Your CMO and business leads can answer these questions.
  • Pain points within your organization. Where are your employees thriving and where are they struggling? And where can you remove obstacles or roadblocks — or empower them to succeed? You’ll need to reach out to your employees and learn this through a prompt pulse survey, or a series of simple focus groups and listening sessions.

As humans, the more pressure we feel, the more likely we are to take immediate action. But we must fight this instinct and pause to look around and take stock of what is going on around us. 

To pivot promptly and effectively, you’ll need a humble sense of self-awareness as a company so you can find the courage and conviction to take bold moves toward the future, while also preserving what’s made your team successful in the first place.

Co-Create a Vision and a Plan for Change

Again, this point seems like something we all learned in kindergarten. Play nicely together in the sandbox. Work together at your tables. It’s just trite, corporate lingo that sophisticated, experienced executives don’t need to focus on, correct? 

Wrong. Even the smartest and most seasoned executives can get in their own way when it comes to collaborating. It’s not intentional or malicious, but I’ve worked with leaders at all levels for many years, and they will often be civil and friendly and say all the right things in the room. However, when it comes to driving fast action under pressure, they revert to their own priorities and expertise.

To pivot successfully, your cross-functional team will need to represent their individual areas of expertise, while also coalescing around a single collective objective. Moving forward, they will need to loosen their grip on their typical agendas, let go of their egos and prioritize one view of success — not just in words but in actions. 

This will require common goals, collective incentives (they cannot be incentivized to drive metrics in their own areas, while also pivoting the company in a different direction), and clear roles and responsibilities. Additionally, this demands a high level of trust and a cadence for coming together to make decisions, address issues, and ensure continued progress. 

In the spirit of urgency and agility, this whole planning process needs to be swift. It needs to happen in a matter of weeks, and it must result in a clear vision and tangible objectives. It should also include a summary of topline steps forward, an impactful map to key stakeholders, and a plan to mobilize those groups to make the shift.

Although this preparation will not alleviate all your growing pains, it is a quick process that can drive rapid progress and ensure leaders achieve positive outcomes sooner.