Math (vs Change) Management



I recently got to hear Nick Tasler  speak at an author’s breakfast. Nick is the author of great books like Ricochet and Domino about change management. My takeaway from his talk was that the real change we need is math management. There are a finite number of hours in the day. Within those hours humans require sleep and food to live. We need social interaction to be alive. These are realities. In my last blog post, I talked about embracing constraints instead of fighting or denying them. So let’s focus on the math management instead of change management. How can we divide our time, multiply our impact, and add uncertainty to support organizational change?

Divide (not dilute) your time. This is a key distinction. Many of us have diluted our attention across many different priorities, working on many things but making progress on few. So let’s take a new approach to this math problem. In Tasler’s book Domino he asserts that a key to change is identifying your top three priorities. Next you need to review your projects and divide them into two lists: a 90 day sprint – items that accelerate your top three priorities — and those that will have to wait. By time boxing your projects and focusing on what is tightly aligned to your priorities, you and your team will be able to focus and make meaningful progress on your most important initiatives. You will allow your team to give these priorities their undivided attention, and the dividend is that they can invest their discretionary effort into the change effort.

Multiplying (by magnifying) your impact. Southwest Airlines was the pioneer of the low cost airline business model. Today, 47 years later, they are the largest low cost domestic airline and have the second largest market share by revenue passenger miles. How did this upstart airline create and sustain such a change in the airline industry? Through their laser focus on their purpose: to connect people to what’s important in their lives through friendly, reliable, and low-cost air travel. Every decision they make as an organization is held up to this magnifying lens. When the marketing team was researching how Southwest could differentiate itself from the competition, one team suggested offering free meals on short, but popular flights. The executive team reviewed the proposal and decided it may be friendly, but it didn’t drive reliability or lower costs, so turned down the proposal. When a different group pitched allowing two free checked bags, the same decision process was used– friendly? Yes. Reliable? Sure. Low cost? Definitely. This differentiation hit on multiple elements of their core strategy and magnified their position as friendly AND low cost. What is your company’s purpose? How will your proposed change magnify your purpose and multiply your impact?

Adding (by addressing) uncertainty. The good news is you don’t actually have to add the uncertainty. You just have to honestly address it. Kurt Lewin created the three stage theory of change, commonly referred to as Unfreeze, Change, Freeze. The challenges today is that change is happening so fast we never get back to freeze and instead have to live in a state of slush. So when your team asks, “When will the change be over? Will there be more changes to come? How can we master this change before the next one comes?”, tell them never, yes, and unlikely. This may add uncertainty but it also adds honesty.  The next discussion you can have with them is, given that we live is a new state of slush, how do we navigate effectively? What should we let float by and what needs to crystallize? It is perfectly natural to seek solid footing in times of change, and it is highly unlikely to find it. Help your team navigate this tension by acknowledging and addressing it’s presence.

Abraham Lincoln once said, “If I had six hours to cut down a tree, I’d spend the first three sharpening my ax.” Unfortunately many organizations today have abandoned the idea of sharpening the saw, and instead reward a mass machete approach to change. Given that 70% of change initiatives fail, perhaps we need to take a step back and try a new approach. Don’t ask your team to power through a change. Instead empower them to create realistic plans that divide their time, multiply their impact, and add uncertainty so they can support your organization’s change priorities.


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