Consistency Versus Change

There is tension in business. One of those subtle challenges is determining when to stay the course in the face of opposition and when to change. Also, when do you stay the course when it’s working well, and not change faster (even when it’s really tempting!)

I once described myself as an “addict of change.” I think I like the challenge and intensity of trying something new. There is a rush to go from 0 to 1… or, perhaps 0% to 90%. That last 10% can be really difficult, and can often take 10 years or more. But, I’ve also described one of my secret weapons as “the ability to grind.” How does one decide when to grind and when to pivot? What are the key factors? Any certain areas? Reasons? What about when it comes to managing a growing team? What about rapid technological change? What about loss of a key person?

We have been using Objectives & Key Results (OKR’s) for change management for some time now with good success. We’ve also been documenting the areas we do not expect to change. We are putting these “do not change” items in a list. The list of “not changing” includes basics of our business models, including distribution channels, customer profiles, key resources, competencies, etc. A lot of these items were not written down in the companies we acquired. We are also now encountering some of the common temptations that we must avoid to prevent drift. These “don’t do’s” help define us, too.

We have chased the change-agent impulse down into the OKR’s. Want to make a major change? Let’s use a quarterly deadline so it’s big enough to work at it with some coordinated effort, but let’s use an orderly process to involve everyone and make sure it fits within our annual strategic plan. This way there is some continuity for everyone involved, and a roll out process that makes sense.

Today, I wrapped another quarterly meeting and the manager and I floated two objectives for the quarter which had a total of five key results between them. Our next assignment is to dial them in based on past success rates. We try to stretch ourselves just enough. And we now have enough data to know if we are pushing ourselves enough, or too much. Did we whiff last quarter? Regular situation in this business? Let’s set smaller goals. Did we nail every single stretch goal? Let’s try for something a bit bigger. This has been healthier than me simply imagining some wild idea and inviting people to try as hard as they could and we’d just see what happened. That’s not exactly great management. My apologies to everyone involved!

In other areas, we are settling into more precise tolerance ranges. What is an acceptable call back ratio? How is our quoted to actual performance? How tight is good enough? What is our “not to exceed” revenue growth rate? These things take time to develop. We still mess things up, but now we’ve got some baselines established. And, if/when we consider a more major change we can evaluate it with a better understanding of how everything interconnects.

I also have begun a habit of reading off a few of our repetitive items on a regular cadence. This used to bore me, especially with such a basic format. However, I’ve found the reading (not summarizing) of the language we spent time on, is very valuable. This is precisely what we set out to do. How did we do last week? Repeat next week. Outloud. Word for word. This creates a drumbeat effect for everyone to march. And, a good beat helps us improvise when called for, too. Then, we can settle back into the steady drum.

As another example of the temptations to change: we had an employee put in their notice in one of the companies. This is a bummer because he is a key teammate and has been with the company for 10 years. His skills and performance have probably advanced faster than our business has. A competitor poached him. That stinks for us as he is an A-player. Maybe we could have or should have done more? This line of thinking immediately causes us to revisit everything we do around him and his position. Maybe we need to re-org the entire position to better line up so as to prevent this sort of thing from ever happening again? So, we start considering new job titles, playing around with the org chart and day-dreaming. Well, that led to changing scorecards, onboarding, regular training and then changes to three other positions. That gets real messy. Is it necessary? Are we fairly compensating for the position he was in? We think so. Did this person just get to a point that we couldn’t justify his pay elsewhere in the market? We sort of think so. So, now, back to the drawing board, and rather than keeping all the possible changes, we just don’t change. Let’s simply post for the position, interview, hire, onboard and train, and maybe we get another allstar ramped in even faster. We know what excellence looks like, right? We can use the existing scorecard and report and develop the new person to the current criteria. In this manner, this “crisis-opportunity” doesn’t justify a huge change just because we can.

Mikel and I have kicked around so many wild entrepreneurial maneuvers. We have spent many hours working on some of these ideas to improve deal flow, launch and/or spin out new software companies, and more. Ultimately, we are settling into a nice groove that works. It’s extremely simple and straight forward to us, but it’s also extremely rare and highly scalable over decades. Maybe the plan doesn’t need revisited every time we have an idea? Maybe we just grind it out? Gain mastery? Excel. Compound. Apply the energy in a focused, repeatable measure.

So, if you’re a small business owner, young or old, and you find yourself considering using each crisis to reset something major, I invite you to consider the reverse, too. Maybe this “crisis” is simply testing you to see if you’ll abandon your proven process? Maybe your discipline is what is most important right now? Maybe the people asking for and inviting the major change actually just need encouragement to press on? Do the well designed plan very well.

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