I am always thinking about change. I want to lead it well. I want to seize the power of it when it’s happening. I get impatient when it doesn’t happen. I think that leading change is the daily work of leadership.
But, here’s a conundrum.
The fastest way to achieve significant organizational change is often by going slowly.
Slow does not mean procrastinating difficult decisions or conversations. And, slow does not mean placating those who will be resistant by avoiding the hard work until they “come around.”
Going slowly means taking small and often unimpressive steps every day. It means devoting time to build ownership and share the credit with key players. It means attending to people who are feeling disrupted while you help them re-align their expectations and behavior. Going slowly means doing the work to rebuild culture across your organization. Going slowly recognizes that change is not an announcement, but a long slog through complicated relational terrain.
The problem is, leaders live to make things happen. Slowly and patiently feel like fingernails on their chalkboard. They resonate with Sammy Hagar’s song, “I Just Can’t Drive 55.”
A friend of mine pastors a strong church with a good reputation making significant impact. A while back he led his church through some changes that would exponentially increase their impact on the lives of people and their community. In a word, the initiative was monumental. He knew it would require major shifts in culture, practice, and priorities. And he understood this "go slow to go fast" principle. One day he told me, “I am so excited about where we are headed it is hard to be patient. But, if we try to go too fast, things will backfire and blow up.”
If you are a leader, I am certain you have at least one significant initiative on your plate right now. More than surviving this pandemic, you are thinking about a preferred future and you long to help your team, your employees, or your congregation get there.
I am not saying going slow is inherently more noble than going fast. I am saying that organizational change is complicated. Even when necessary, it can be unwelcome. Organization change demands time. Time to bring people along, to cultivate buy-in, to anchor a new reality, and to deal with the destabilization change always brings.
Press the accelerator of change too hard, too soon, or too often and the resistance you’ll ignite can cause organizational retrenchment that permanently locks in the old ways.
Sure, some situations call for quick and decisive action. In those moments, going slowly can be irresponsible or worse. However, the impulse to make things happen now usually says more about the impatience of a leader than about what is best for the organization.
WHEN SHOULD YOU GO SLOW?
If the any of the following conditions apply, you would be well-served to slow down and allow more processing time.
Your desired outcome represents a change of culture.
What is being changed has been entrenched for a long time as “the way we do things.”
Successful implementation requires large scale participation.
Your people feel fatigued by multiple recent changes. All change destabilizes and wears people out. The next one might demoralize the troops.
Something similar to the current initiative was tried and failed within active corporate memory.
The results of this change will affect corporate identity. When our identity gets tweaked, our feelings of personal significance feels threatened.
The organization you lead is a volunteer organization. (ie. a church or club or HOA or team or…)
WHEN SHOULD YOU GO FAST?
Just as there are some times when you should go slowly, there are indeed timeS to act quickly. Here are a few of those.
Your people are discouraged after a series of hard hits and the hope of a better future falters.
Your proposed change requires minimal human resources to implement AND it will yield quick feel-good wins.
You face a crisis that threatens corporate viability.
Your reputation in the community or in your market sector has been damaged and this initiative will address it.
The essence of this change is not only strategically helpful, but it was born as a grassroots effort. Going slowly in this scenario will disempower your people.
You are ready to make the decision to go “after it.” Implementation of the decision may need slow thoughtful effort, but indecision means abdicating leadership.
What else has your experience taught you?
Can you identify other criteria for when you should slow things down or speed things up?
What are you working on?
Any chance you’re going too fast or too slow?
Grab a few of your peers and brainstorm together: What would we risk by speeding up and what are the risks of slowing down?
Let me know what you think and what you are learning.