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:
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 cycle begins. Example: September 10, 2001
The incident or new information that disrupts the Old Status Quo. Example: the events of September 11
The confusion and disruption following the Foreign Element’s arrival. Example: September 12 and the months following
The concept that gives us a path out of Chaos. Example: the security regime adopted worldwide during 2001
Integration and Practice
How we integrate the Transforming Idea into our operations. Example: the first eighteen months after September 11
New Status Quo
The period following integration, when we continue to enhance performance. Example: where we are now
This model provides three important principles:
For example, after a reorganization, expect individual performance to drop significantly, albeit temporarily. Avoid making important decisions during Chaos.
For modeling organizational responses to change, I favor a model called OODA, which is an acronym for its four elements: observe, orient, decide, and act. Colonel John Boyd, a Korean War ace fighter pilot in the US Army Air Corps and US Air Force, developed OODA [4, 5, 6, 7]:
We sense the environment using all available means. Example: A corporation’s senior management learns of a hostile takeover attempt.
We synthesize images, views, and impressions of the world. Example: Management researches the takeover offer and available defenses.
We select one of many possible responses. Example: Management decides to approach a competitor about a merger.
We execute our decision and return to the beginning of the loop for the next cycle. Example: Management agrees to merge, and the two companies make a public announcement.
When systems interact, they traverse their OODA loops. OODA offers three important principles for fluid environments:
Master Logistics and Force Protection
Logistics is the management of materials and services from acquisition up to, but not including, application. In organizations, force protection ensures staff availability, despite pressures for reassignments and terminations.
In fluid environments, mastering logistics and force protection requires high levels of situational awareness, multithreaded planning, applying the Satir Change Model, and applying Boyd’s OODA model.
As an engineering manger, I applied situational awareness and the Satir Change Model to implement force protection. One day, a friend in finance told me that the current quarter’s revenues would be disappointing. Shortly after that, all managers were directed to review their subordinates. I immediately recognized that downsizing was likely, because performance reviews were normally anniversary-based, and that led me to make adjustments that protected our staff.
To apply situational awareness and multi-threaded planning to logistics, don’t wait for the one-hundred-year flood to begin ordering from a flood-safe manufacturer. To ensure that an alternate manufacturer understands your needs, order regularly from an alternate. To aid with situational awareness, set a Google alert for the primary manufacturer anded with “flood” and the geographical location in question.
Organizational environments are likely to become even more fluid. Fluidity is probably dimensional, because the degree of fluidity can be different for organizational structure, demographics, strategic goals, business focus, and more. Since an organization can be more fluid in one dimension than another, shear stresses can arise, limiting organizational success.
Leaders who master management in fluid environments and who recognize the need to adapt to fluidity in all dimensions of the business are the most likely to endure.