Most management and change management methodologies assume a traditional environment—one in which the time between changes is much greater than the time required to adapt to each change. In fluid environments, the next change event happens before we can finish adapting to the last one, and sometimes even the one before that.
Managing often entails moving from surprise to surprise while somehow staying almost on track. On good days, we can avoid sacrificing our goals.
And then there are the other days. Most people now work in environments that can best be characterized as fluid, because they are subject to continual change. In fluid environments, no status quo endures for long.
Perhaps a haiku best captures the troubles of traditional managers in fluid environments:
We prepared for change..
We had alternative plans.
How did we miss that?
Although most changes are predictable in the large, they are rarely predictable in detail. For instance, in the short term, we’ll probably experience a hiring freeze, a capital freeze, a contractor price increase, or unanticipated turnover. But we probably can’t predict which of these will happen, when they will happen, or how much impact they will have.
Among other factors, successful management depends on planning carefully, managing risk, closely monitoring current activities, and intervening promptly when corrective action is needed. When we succeed, we meet or exceed projections; but in fluid environments, that standard is often impossibly high.
Mastering change management in itself offers little protection, because most methodologies assume a traditional environment in which the time between changes is much greater than the time required to adapt to each change. In fluid environments, the next change event often happens before we can finish adapting to the last one.
The problem is actually even worse. In fluid environments, we know little about coming changes. Preparing doesn’t help much, because we don’t know what will happen next and the possibilities are endless.
But there is much we can do. Following are four recommendations for managing in fluid environments.
Know Your Situation
In traditional environments, we can wait for official announcements about coming changes. In fluid environments, we cannot wait. We need what the military and intelligence communities call situational awareness–the perception, comprehension, and temporal projection of relevant environmental elements. Situational awareness tells you what’s happening around you and how your own actions affect overall outcomes.
Although there are sophisticated theories of situational awareness , a few simple guidelines suffice for us:
- Build and maintain your personal network.
- Encourage subordinates and teams to do the same.
- Monitor relevant world news with Google alerts and social media.
- Attend organizational social functions.
- Systematically collect and record situational data.
- Use, but don’t rely on, official information channels.
Master Multi-threaded Planning
Most plans are weak in risk management, but even when we do address risk, our plans are usually single-threaded. That is, we proceed along one line of action, switching to another only when necessary.
In traditional environments, single-threaded plans usually suffice. The delays involved in switching to another thread are acceptable. In fluid environments, any delay can threaten the entire effort. Alternate threads must be “warmed up” for ready use.
The US Air Force used multi-threaded planning to develop the air-launched cruise missile, commissioning both Boeing and General Dynamics to develop entries for a fly-off that Boeing eventually won .
Concerns about duplication in multi-threaded planning are real—but often shortsighted. When all goes well, singlethreaded planning is less costly. But when troubles arise, multi-threaded planning limits the revenue losses that result from switching to new lines of attack. Those losses can be dramatic, because being late to market often leads to failure.
Mastering change begins with understanding how people change. Of the dozens of change models, I’ve found the one developed by family therapist Virginia Satir to be the most useful for understanding how people deal with change .
Old Status Quo
The initial state, before the change
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