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The challenge of organisational overwhelm – time to get a grip!

How you can better drive forward your transformation agenda.

As we move into the first weeks of 2022, business leaders are taking a moment to reflect on the last 12-18 months. 

The pressures on business have been unprecedented in modern times. We have seen clients who had to reduce their workforce by 95% in a few weeks and hibernate as their market disappeared. We have seen others where significant opportunities arose within a similar timeframe and they needed to manage surge growth to create, test, launch new products and services at unprecedented speed. 

How has your organisation coped over the past 18 months? Are you emerging from survival mode and building back the core capabilities as restrictions ease and demand returns? Are you fixing the tail of issues caused by growth at break-neck speed which strained your people, processes, and technology? Or have you, like most organisations, been taking tactical decisions to simply stay one step ahead, while putting larger transformations or changes on hold until the business case feels more certain? 

Wherever you may find yourself on this spectrum, you are not alone. Many companies are facing what we call organisational overwhelm as they enter 2022. Overwhelm results when multiple pressures and challenges (pre-existing and novel alike) overtake the organisation’s ability to assess change needs, decide key priorities, and then act. Organisations in the grips of overwhelm are characterised by limited long-term planning, a sense that their operations tempo is increasingly unmanageable, fragmented approaches to needed improvements, and an ever-expanding operational risk position. 

Our view of organisational overwhelm is partly derived from concepts articulated by Col John Boyd, USAF, creator of the “Observe, Orient, Decide, Act (OODA) Loop” doctrine of warfighting. As a pilot and later a strategist, Boyd assessed the impacts of combat on organisations and individual units. He pointed out the degrading impacts of non-linearity, uncertainty, risk, fluidity, and disorder that result from a rapidly changing operational environment and took the view that winning requires leaders to rapidly reassert situational control through an iterative, four-step sense-making process – “OODA.”

Four outcomes of organisational overwhelm

Reflecting on our consulting engagements in recent months, we have found that organisational overwhelm results in predictable outcomes:

Massively parallel, disconnected change

Good practices (for example, changing supplier relationships, improved and more flexible ways of working and technical innovation) established through local initiatives to the challenges presented at the unit level. There is not the time to take a more systemic view and translate these into a cohesive organisation-wide response which would enhance the positive impacts. There are also impacts on employee morale for those invested and affected by the raft of tactical initiatives. Meanwhile, areas of high-risk (for example outdated data governance that  creates risks of non-compliance and regulatory breach) go unchecked. This can silently create a much higher aggregate risk profile for the business.

Inability to keep pace with changing expectations

As a result of Covid-19, both consumers and employees have adapted what they expect from companies. Consumers demand seamless digital experiences and are much more likely to change buying habits when not satisfied during this period of upheaval. Similarly, as organisations adapt to enable remote or hybrid working, employees simultaneously demand continued career development and training opportunities and a focus on work-life balance. And as many organisations are now finding out, employees’ willingness to leave organisations falling short of expectations is at an all-time high. This churn can create significant headwinds for organisations emerging from Covid-19 impacts.

Failure to innovate

Organisations, and individuals, have a challenging time thinking creatively or strategically when under significant pressure. Finding time and space to step away from the status quo to considering new and improved ways of working is, unfortunately, often the first thing to be deprioritised. For example, organisations sitting on top of a treasure trove of customer or market data nevertheless often fail to effectively use it to give context to decisions, to optimise services, or to adopt a more proactive posture, often because it requires new governance structures and better collaboration. For employees already working long hours to match break-away demand, it can feel impossible to find ways to improve structures and processes.

Losing your “North Star”

 A natural effect of fighting continuous fires to survive is that you switch focus away from the longer-term business ambition. But habits are usually formed within 10-12 weeks – and the consequence can be that the consensus around a future that your leadership team shared has dissipated. It is time to realign and reinforce leadership commitment.

How to address organisational overwhelm

The good news is that overwhelm is addressable; it begins by creating space to think broadly and intentionally at the right level to reconstitute your change and transformation agenda. This includes reflecting on (and redefining if necessary) the organisation’s long-term ambition.

Graphic about Regain control and reassert ambition via a structured approach

We recommend starting by conducting a short, sharp review of your enterprise, business unit, or function via a structured process. We suggest you break this into three parts:

Part 1. Review your customers’ needs

Understand how these have changed, what services and products would best meet these needs, and what can you do to create that offering. Challenge your team to “delight” customers. Re-establish your ambition for market success and create that leadership consensus on the desired future-state.

Part 2. Examine operational effectiveness

Examine operational effectiveness are the current capabilities effective and where are the gaps? Undertake a structured review of process, organisation, technology, and information aspects to identify the requirements for change. Consider the potential for data driven interventions to create new sources of value in the future.

Part 3. Prioritise & plan the portfolio of change

Review and explore the list of changes to form a balanced and sequenced portfolio of initiatives tied to outcomes over time. Establish leadership at all levels for the initial delivery horizons.

A fundamental change in business

This approach does not need to create a major hiatus in your operations. We have helped clients to achieve positive impacts through a structured, fundamental business review in as little as two days, with extended global leadership teams interacting via remote working and virtual collaboration.

What it does require is support from your leadership to give employees time and space to diagnose and problem-solve. It also requires commitment from participants to be open, share a goal to identify all pain-points, and work collaboratively to discuss and agree on priority improvements. 

As the world returns (we hope) to a new normal, take time to reassert your ambition, re-engage your extended leadership team, and re-examine the fundamental changes your business needs to make.

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