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“Don't waste your time looking back. You're not going that way."

| October 11, 2016

by Jim Bruce

Today’s Tuesday Reading, “Don’t waste your time looking back.  You’re not going that way,” is an essay by Mark (Bo) Connell, Assistant Dean for Hospital Operations, Texas A&M University, College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, Texas Veterinary Medical Center.  It first appeared earlier this year as a leaders program reflection.
That quote I’ve taken as the title for this essay is attributed to King Ragnar Lothbrok in the History Channel’s hit television series “Vikings.”  It’s not clear whether or not this Norse version of King Arthur actually existed, or whether he ever said those words.   However, the point he makes is timeless.  You simply can’t change the future by always looking back toward the past.
I thought about Ragnar’s words as I re-read John Kotter’s article Accelerate!, and decided to take a little artistic license and revise those lines to read as: “Why are you wasting your time looking backwards?  We’re not going in that direction.”  While it’s tempting to long for the comfort of the “known” and of the past, the things that worked then don’t necessarily work anymore.  And, in many cases they produce the exact opposite of the intended effect.  Longing for the past keeps us anchored to it, and makes it all but impossible to move forward. 
How does any of this relate to Kotter’s article?  At its most fundamental core, all strategy and leadership has as its goal the achievement of some objective, and that always involves the motivation and engagement of other people.  People are by far the most valuable resource in any organization whether it’s a business, a university (which is also a business – sorry to all those who think differently), a community group, a church … the list goes on and on.  The problem with people is that we don’t always like “change,” and change is a constant thing.  One of the most important things we can do as leaders is to shepherd people through these changes, because at the end of the day, change doesn’t happen without people making change happen.
So, back to Kotter’s article, how can a place like a university manage change?  For starters, it can become more open to the idea of change.  Kotter discusses the idea of a dual operating system whereby the organizational hierarchy manages the organization, and a complementary system or a strategy network, identifies those opportunities that will accelerate to move the organization forward.  These two systems work hand-in-glove to make change happen.  This concept is also described in great detail in retired U.S. Army General Stanley McChrystal’s latest book Team of Teams.  The organizational hierarchy is necessary because large organizations need “professional management” and the strategy network is necessary because large organizational hierarchies are simply not nimble enough to respond to changing externalities quickly enough to leverage their own core strengths in a way that produces a successful outcome. 
Take for example the way we employed (even without knowing it at the time) Kotter’s “Eight Accelerators” when facing growing competition for patient volumes.  In February 2013, a major competitor arrived on the scene and “created a sense of urgency” for which we had to develop a rapid response.  The new hospital was taking several hundred cases away from us each year, cases necessary for teaching and for revenue.  We assembled “a guiding coalition” within the organization to develop a “strategic vision and the initiatives to capitalize on this opportunity.”  Our response consisted of a large team of 45-50 key stakeholders from across the School who helped us develop a unifying strategy and vision.  We “communicated our vision and strategy” frequently across the institution through weekly update newsletters, and town hall meetings.  We worked hard “to remove barriers” by empowering people to make decisions on the front lines rather than waiting to run them up the flagpole (i.e., hierarchy) to get permission. 
This can be a risky proposition, but I have found that the people who are right there at the point of service know more about how to improve things on the spot than I do, so I have to trust them to make the right decision.  We do discuss these changes before they move forward, but it’s a much more informal process than the days or weeks (or months) that are normally required before making a decision.  We “celebrate our wins” publicly via email and town hall meetings, and “short-term” wins are still wins worth celebrating.  We “never let up” because once you do that, people and processes almost always slide back into that comfort zone that Ragnar warns us about.  Finally, we do our best to “institutionalize a culture of change” because if you can get the organization to that point, it will be much easier to spot trends and indicators, adapt to them quickly, and achieve strategic success in the future. 
So, in conclusion, I’ll circle back to my take on to Ragnar’s words, “Why are you wasting your time looking backwards?  We aren’t going in the direction.”  We need to learn from the past, but the future lies in front of us.  Let’s stay focused on what lies ahead, and how we plan to get there.  Keeping focused on our goal will help to ensure that we achieve it, whether that’s managing a small work group, implementing a new system, or leading a major strategic initiative. 
Bo’s advice is right-on.  Face forward.  That’s the only direction you can take to move forward.  Kotter’s eight accelerators

1.     Create a sense of urgency.

2.     Build a guiding coalition.

3.     Form a strategic vision and initiatives.

4.     Enlist a volunteer army.

5.     Enable action by removing barriers.

6.     Generate short-term wins.

7.     Sustain acceleration.

8.     Institute change.

represent a good outline to keep before you as you work through your change initiatives.  
Make your week a great one.  .  .  .     jim
Jim Bruce is a Senior Fellow and Executive Coach at MOR Associates, and Professor of Electrical Engineering, Emeritus, and CIO, Emeritus, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, MA