A New Agile Management System for Opportunistic Growth

Nov 3, 2014
8 Min Read

There are a lot of business people losing sleep these days as they contemplate during the wee hours of the night how they are going to stay competitive in a business landscape that seems to accelerate daily – if not by the hour.

Will they miss the next big opportunity? Will their strategy bog them down? How can they get change to happen quickly when they need it?

The answer may in a new book by John P. Kotter, “Accelerate: Building Strategic Agility for a Faster-Moving World.” Kotter, a Harvard Business School professor, advocates a new framework that can help companies thrive in a time of constant change.

Contrary to others who say the only way to survive the new business challenges is to blow up traditional hierarchies, Kotter says companies should keep them in place because they are one of the “most amazing innovations of the 20th century” and they are “absolutely necessary to make organizations work.”

Still, he admits there are some downsides to such management structures, such as policies that inhibit speed and a short-term focus on quarterly results.

That’s why Kotter says that the solution is a dual-operating system.

Under this system, a network-like structure is formed that is more agile and free of bureaucratic labors and runs alongside the traditional hierarchy. The driving force behind the structure is a “volunteer army” of people who are enthusiastic about the vision and strategy.

Such a system allows companies to keep the bottom line healthy, but react more quickly to strategic opportunities and challenges, he says.

“You create this sense of urgency that is less focused on ‘Oh, my God! We’re going to sink!’ to focusing on how there is opportunity in crisis,” Kotter explains. “It’s been proven that once the big opportunity is clear to them, then it becomes rational and compelling and the panic evaporates. “

Kotter explains that the “big opportunity” can be a new market or new demands on a company because of competition, but it can lead to great outcomes if the possibility “is exploited well enough and fast enough.”

But how?

One key is that you must appeal to the heart and the mind, Kotter says.

“Passion – or whatever you want to call it – is an incredibly powerful source of energy,” he says.

As the windows of opportunity open and close more quickly than ever before, it’s critical that leaders be able to clearly explain why that window is opening and why they should be excited to jump through it.

Kotter emphasizes that the big opportunity is not a vision, but is more specific. He suggests using a statement such as: “Because of contextual factor X and our special capability Y, we have a very real and exciting opportunity to offer service Z and substantially grow our revenues and profits starting in this year and continuing on for at least five years, with unprecedented benefits flowing from the top of the firm to the bottom.”

Why talk about opportunity and not just state a vision? Because in traditional hierarchies, talking about the future can trigger fears that silos are about to be affected, and that can prompt people to become territorial and protective of their turf. They will become resistant. But when you talk about opportunity, it’s more likely people don’t see their future as being threatened, Kotter explains.

He also warns that a big opportunity should also not be considered a strategy in any way, shape or form.

“A strategy is just a more analytical way of describing a vision,” he says. “If you start with strategies or strategic initiatives to create aligned urgency, more often than not you will be using statements that are emotionally barren: all head and no heart.”

He says that his experience shows that organizations can get 75% of large employee populations to grasp and be excited by a good big opportunity statement in ways that just don’t happen with strategy or vision statements.

In his book, Kotter writes that the most effective big opportunity statements have characteristics such as:

  • Being concise. It can be written on less than a page, often just a quarter of a page. Keeping it shorter makes it easier to share with others and helps create a sense of urgency around it among large groups of people.
  • Making sense. Based on real happenings inside and outside the organization, the big opportunity statement doesn’t sound like fantasy. It’s based on reality. A good statement will address what, why, why us, why now and why bother.
  • Being compelling. It appeals not just to the head, but to the heart of all relevant audiences – not just to the people at the bottom of the hierarchy or the top, to some silos and not others.
  • Sounding positive. It’s about an opportunity and isn’t designed to scare anyone. It’s more like a statement of a “burning desire.”
  • Feeling real. This isn’t just a feel-good message to rally the troops. Senior leaders genuinely believe in it and are excited about it.
  • Being clear. If you don’t want people rushing off in non-aligned directions, ensure your statement is clear so that everyone is on the same page.
  • Staying aligned. This statement must be aligned with any existing similar statements at higher levels of the organization. For example, you cannot be at odds with strategic plans or it will lead to stress and problems.

Finally, Kotter says that the most successful statements are created by the executive team of the unit that wants a strategy accelerated immediately, or wants a new way of operating to win in the new business landscape – or both.

“We have no evidence that consultants or task forces can write this sort of statement for people who actually run the relevant unit,” he writes in the book.



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