We are living in challenging times, indeed. By now, we all know in our bones what living in times of “VUCA” means. Working within Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity is a different game than the one learned in decades of management designed for stability and based on planning and control.
In this scenario, we hear many companies saying they have to focus on execution in order to survive, they have no time for anything else, let alone innovation. At the same time, we also hear many companies calling for transformation as an absolute need, in order to be apt for the coming tides of challenge.
Both positions follow a convincing logic, but they are incompatible — you can’t effectively embrace both of them. So, how do you choose? Should you venture into transformation or focus on execution?
We won’t ever bother you with theoretical lectures on how reality is, or should be dealt with. It’s just not useful in our honest opinion. Instead, let’s start with a look at what we see in our real-life work. The following ones are among the most recurrent reasons why our customers have been reaching out to us in the last few years:
- Business is going well, but we don’t have time to breathe and we find ourselves fire-fighting emergencies almost daily.
- Our executives are struggling in managing the levels of complexity and variability our work has reached, and try hard to keep asking for the achievement of predefined goals.
- Our previous approach in taking decisions and setting priorities is no longer working, and we find ourselves only focusing on the short term.
- We are growing fast and we need to review the way we organize work as our size changes in magnitude and information does not flow effectively.
- Business is going well, but our departments (/teams /divisions) often fight with each other over the proper way of doing things.
- We have created new structures in our organization, and they need to find their way of working in balance between freedom and compliance with organizational processes.
- Our market is evolving much faster than before, and we need to redefine how we attract and nurture talent.
In fact, they usually do not notice only one of these “symptoms”. Unsurprisingly, they detect many of them at once. Now, for more insight into how we approach these needs, you can have a look at the two articles about organizational adaptiveness and the Evolution Flow. The point we want to make here is not about how we deal with them — rather, the question is whether for any of them you would suggest either to focus on execution or to venture into transformation. Would you? Quite likely, for each and everyone of them, thinking about real-life cases and really imagining the daily life of these organizations, you see how both the elements of running the business and evolving the organizational organism are seriously needed.
The well known conversation on “ambidexterity” in business, needs to be brought to the deepest level. In fact, it can no longer deal only with how the organization acts — namely by integrating both exploitation and exploration, according to the usual conversation on organizational ambidexterity. Ultimately, it needs to deal with how the organization thinks and perceives. In other words, it needs to deal with how the organization is. Even in a reality in which constantly exploring new territories were not a need — and that’s not the reality in which we are living today in basically any scope of activity — in spite of staying in the known territory, the deep twofold need to be running your operational system with all the possible energies while also adapting it in the flow of strong VUCA dynamics, would be a must.
Almost always, what we observe as a response to this deep need is an alternation of phases in which any organization focuses on execution for a while, then ventures into a “transformation” initiative, before going back to a new phase of execution focus, and start over. Basically, this way of doing is like carrying a closet through the steps of a big stair instead of using an inclined plane — as you climb each step you lift the whole weight of the closet up, using all of your strength, then you move horizontally for a (short) while before lifting up again. After just a few steps, you are exhausted. And that’s how we find so many organizations today — exhausted. Well, the ancient Egyptians already knew that a ramp is a much better choice. Moreover, merging together both the actions of lifting up and moving forward in any given moment is not only what an inclined plane does by basic mechanics: it is also what any living system does throughout its whole life. Any real-life path is a continuous flow of evolution. Unless it is not, because you strive to constrain it into an alternation of execution-transformation phases!
If this amount of reductionist thinking is not enough, buckle up because there’s more! And that’s the concept of “organizational debt”. Basically the idea is that while you focus on execution, so-to-say moving on the horizontal segment of the binary stair you imagine, your system accumulates a “difference” between how it works and how it should be working. You are holding on to running your business, without changing anything relevant in order to put all the energies into the execution. In the meanwhile, the changing context requires your organization more and more variations, and not implementing them creates this “debt”. But hey, don’t worry, it’s debt: you can pay it later! In fact, that’s what “transformation” initiatives should be doing: devoting a big portion of your energies to getting you to the next level (or up in the vertical segment of the stair) so to reduce this “organizational debt” to an acceptable level and then “get back to work” again.
Honestly, we find this to be huge nonsense. No wonder that the waves of “transformation” initiatives are becoming ever more frequent, and so many companies are exhausted (and confused) by new transformation initiatives starting even before the previous one has come to an end. The idea of “organizational debt” is reductionist and, thus, very dangerous in real life. Imagine if, in your family, you’d focus on your stuff — work, hobbies, whatever it is — and completely neglect your partner and/or your children for months. And now imagine thinking about it as a “debt” that you can then “pay” by focusing on them for a while, before going back to neglecting them again. How many cycles like this would it take to break your family down? In the complexity of real life, not only what is lost is lost forever, since any moment, interaction and context are unique and unrepeatable, but also the consequences of each neglection are nonlinear — they are easily of exponential intensity and pervasive extension. Once you neglect your relationship with your spouse for months, that cannot be reverted: it can only be evolved further, wherever that will then take you. When you’d go back to the relationship you’d find a different system, a different organic situation that has now embedded and embodied the phase of neglection in itself. Does this make sense? Is this what you’d want?
Another way of putting it, maybe more practical, is imagining you have to go for a huge walk and you put on your old trekking shoes. The moment you wear them, you feel they are now too tight for you, but you go anyway. After a mile they start hurting, but you keep going — you’ll change them at the end of the first day of walking. After the whole first day, and many more miles, your feet are badly damaged. Is that a “debt” that your new shoes will solve on the second day after you’ll have changed the old ones? Of course not. Nonsense, right? Yet, we do this in business all the time: we focus on execution, and then we try to “solve the problems” with transformation.
We’re then back to our question: since focusing on execution and venturing into transformation at the same time are two logically incompatible positions, how do you choose between them in any given moment? Well — in case we still need to say it after our brief reflection — you don’t. As Bertrand Russell would say, that is a way of stating the problem that does not allow a solution. The true problem is, in fact, the question itself. If you think about real-life relationships, like those with your loved ones, you won’t need any “expert” lens to solve this apparent puzzle, let alone ours. Reality is a continuous flow of evolution, not a series of segments of “execution” of “transformation”. Any organization is both evolving and executing in any given moment, and you need to learn how to nurture both aspects at every step of the way. Moreover, each moment of the path is different, each step needs a unique mix of nuances, a dynamic balance in how you do it.
In order to stay resilient in the currents of VUCA, relevant to your customers, partners, workers, and resonant with the broader set of players, narratives, value streams that compose your ecosystem, you need to overtake thinking linearly about this crucial topic: there is no execution separated from evolution, and transformation can only be a sharper phase of evolution among the others in the journey. Gaining this ability requires a simple and yet deep shift in how your organization perceives at the core of its worldview. It is a course of work aimed at embedding evolutionary dynamics at all of your organizational scales and in each of your scopes of work. We have seen organizations embracing this endeavor and, at Cocoon Pro, it is what the Evolution Flow is for — an intense dance we cherish.