Agile  | 4 MIN. READ

Acceleration and Inertia

Andrew Webster, October 4, 2018

How great change initiatives die when leaders are afraid to take risks

Taking risks with agile transformationsFast and furious — that’s the goal for business today. The relentless pursuit of agile transformations, the desire to be disruptive, and the need for rapid iterative deliverables is all tied to speed. It all comes down to being innovative, and if organizations hesitate in this process or move too slowly, they miss perishable opportunities to grow their business and generate more customer value.

Most executives know this in theory, but we often find that when they deploy transformation initiatives using design thinking strategies, their fears and uncertainty causes them to put on the brakes when they should be accelerating. Not only does this put them at risk of falling behind their competitors, it can reverse all of the momentum they made in shifting their corporate culture to be more agile.

Don’t Waffle

Moving quickly is key to design thinking. These methods are built around the concept of rapid idea generation and brainstorming, and fast feedback loops.

In our design thinking workshops, as in our everyday design-influenced work, ExperiencePoint often creates timeboxes around creative tasks specifically to instill a culture of speed — and to eliminate the tendency to gratuitously ponder every idea to death. Initially participants get excited about the rapid environment. Once they get over the awkwardness of working in an unfamiliar, cross-functional team, they quickly start shouting out ideas, and providing rapid-fire feedback to their colleagues in an effort to adhere to the principles they’ve just learned. But often, as is the case with any new behavior, once a person or team returns to their “unchanged” workplace, they can gradually slip back into old ways of behaving and thinking.

Perhaps in the first few weeks project teams were buzzing with new ideas that promised to disrupt the marketplace, but a few months later the buzz has died down, and the innovations become incremental at best. Often it can be traced back to leaders in the organization who panic about the sudden speed of change and re-entrench their teams in the old ways of doing things.

Any major change management effort requires a willingness to take risks knowing that failure is a possibility. But it’s also the only way to truly adapt an organization for the future. When executives champion agile transformations, and make bold statements about putting the customer at the center of every decision, they can’t afford to waffle.

Most employees have lived through cycles of ambitious executives who promise change only to backpedal their expectations and investments in the project. With each failed initiative their willingness to be optimistic wans, giving the next bold thinker even less time to demonstrate results.

That means that when leaders make audacious declarations about embracing change, they have a very short window to take action. Everyone in the organization will watch closely to see if they will follow through with their promises. And if nothing changes or the company reverses course, their enthusiasm will quickly decay and cynicism will take root. When an executive makes a claim about how things will be different in the future, they have lit a fuse. In 12 months or so, people will either celebrate them for moving the organization successfully in that direction, or exhibit a high level of cynicism towards them for making the unfounded claim.

How to be an Agent of Change

To avoid the inertia that can destroy a change initiative, executives need to set the stage carefully. That includes being willing to fail and to have their bold predictions proven wrong. Change is risky, and leaders have to embrace a level of uncertainty or it can’t work.

They also can’t lead the journey alone. Successful change agents need a dedicated team who will enthusiastically support the vision; and a detailed roadmap that not only defines the new way of doing things, but also identifies the roadblocks that will get in the way of success. This step in the transformation process is vital to making change stick. Whether it’s redefining key performance indicators to create room for taking risks, or eliminating bureaucratic processes that require layers of approval before any idea can take shape, getting rid of the old ways of doing things is the only way to create the right conditions for the new ways to blossom.

Once the change begins, these executives need to become evangelists, touting the value of customer-centricity, agility and transformation, celebrating early successes, and giving permission to early adopters to pursue radical ideas. Big ideas and bold promises are a great way to start a transformation, but unless you quickly follow those words with deeds they will do more harm than good.


Learn how to enable innovation skill-building at scale here or download our free ebook Kickstart Innovation: A Guide for Organizations.



Andrew Webster is VP of Transformation at ExperiencePoint. Andrew leverages over 15 years of experience designing and delivering working models, design sprints, change interventions and training programs to develop and apply user-centric problem solving approaches and solutions. Andrew has worked with global organizations including Walmart, GE, Johnson & Johnson, Coca-Cola, Deloitte, MetLife and Microsoft. He has also taught executives at leading universities, including Harvard Business School and IMD.


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