Every so often, you reach a point where the organization you’re leading seems not to be making adequate progress. If you’ve made some attempts at improving yet seem to be at an impasse, the solution is rarely to keep butting your head against the wall but harder. That’s when a reset might be in order—a sharp right turn to get things back in order (or better).
Talking with my clients, it seems humans are prone to realizing they’ve reached this point too late. We default to trying harder for longer than needed because it’s the path of least resistance. “If we just pull it together, we’ll see things improve.” The problem is that organizations can reach a point where more force is needed to negate the inertia of letting things continue as they have.
There’s also a common issue of thinking you’ve done something different when it is equivalent to just flailing your hands around. Here are some examples I’ve seen recently. First, there is the team that suffered from its quality being in a constant decline even as they were bringing on more QA people. The executive thought changing where the QA people were in the org chart would make a difference. I pointed out that org charts don’t usually attend meetings.
Next, there is the common thought that merely creating an extra recurring meeting would be enough to solve an issue. While for some simpler situations it might suffice, people have grown ever more resistant to focusing in meetings. I seldom see such meetings where those invited have taken the time to prepare for the discussion. More often than not, that makes these a costly waste of time.
Lastly, I was helping an executive who considered using some metrics to improve delivery times. Once again, sending a weekly email with some numbers or even a fancy graph will rarely create a long-lasting change in an organization bigger than a single pizza team.
All these failed attempts usually boil down to making you feel like you did something, but the team is answering with a resounding (though unspoken) “So what?”
The Juice Cleanse
I know some leaders are afraid that a harder reset is about being forceful or authoritative. That should never be your approach. Instead, consider why a good rejiggering might be in order.
It signals something that’s more impactful than your idea du jour. It’s very easy for people to disregard what they view as “yet another change.” Framing a reset as such gets attention. The attention then gets the team out of autopilot. Teams go into a groove—even if not a very good one—and stop noticing how certain things get done. The reset is kind of like moving offices. For a few weeks, we’re all more aware and attuned. Pushing the team outside its comfort zone makes it possible to go into deliberate practice.
Getting people’s attention is not easy, especially in hybrid organizations. Such resets are not about capriciousness but about communicating just how important something is. By doing so, you’re creating what I called a window of malleability in The Tech Executive Operating System.
To make this happen, here are some best practices and rules of thumb I find helpful:
- Remember that you’re never aiming to be “done.” There’s no one correct solution, and as teams evolve, even what used to go smoothly will require attention again.
- Don’t assume simply changing the process would work. It has to be deeper than yet another recurring Zoom call. Try to find out why the team has avoided something so far, which incentives are in place to stop what you want, and create a process change that takes that into consideration.
- Don’t use metrics or KPIs as a “stick” but as a measure of success. A weekly email with a certain number is usually just yawn-inducing. Instead, find a measure that the team can genuinely influence and that matters, and use that as a success metric.
- Further, use metrics that are not easily gamed (even unconsciously). The number of PRs, or the velocity, don’t usually mean a lot. Use things like product objectives and business KPIs.
- Involve the team in the reset. You can point out the gravity of the matter, but you don’t have to come up with all the steps yourself. Engaging them can result in better ideas and a genuine buy-in.
- Celebrate progress often.
- Be open about this being a process. Just as there’s no “done” here, chances are slim that your first iteration will be perfect.