Home»Agility: The Secret to Leading Change
Last Updated: Jul 7, 2021|3.1 min read|

When a reporter asked Mike Tyson if he was worried about boxer Evander Holyfield’s fight plan, the heavyweight champion responded, “Everyone has a plan until they get hit.”

Tyson’s missive is a variation on the old Prussian military adage that no plan ever survives first contact with the enemy. That’s not to say that planning for change shouldn’t be meticulous. There are the sponsors, stakeholders, resources, culture, and the leading and lagging indicators to think through. Then there are the plans for communicating, measuring and managing expectations.

Planning is essential.

But any business leader will tell you one of the fundamental skills of leading change is having the agility to adapt to the first hit, which inevitably comes from left field.

Miscalculating change

In the early 1980s, Pepsi advertising executives came up with a stroke of genius: the Pepsi Challenge. A blind taste test, consumers were presented with two unlabelled cups of cola– one Coke and the other Pepsi.

Despite Coke spending $100 million more than Pepsi in advertising each year, and dominating supermarket shelf space and vending machines, consumers consistently rated the ‘sweeter’ and ‘rounded’ Pepsi taste over the ‘bitiness’ of Coke 57% of the time.

As Malcolm Gladwell tells the story in Blink, Coke executives were stumped. At first, they cried foul on the Pepsi statistics, but Coca-Cola’s own internal testing confirmed the results and they sent their scientists back to tinker with their 100-year-old recipe. Pepsi was on the rise and in response, New Coke – a smoother and more rounded cola – was developed to arrest the decline of Coke’s market share.

But Coke’s response to the Pepsi Challenge proved a miscalculation. What they hadn’t factored in was the difference between taking a sip of cola and drinking the whole can.

Pepsi’s sweet flavour had skewered the results in the challenge in favour of those who took a sip. But over time, Coke drinkers who were tempted over to Pepsi found the sweetness too overpowering when drinking a whole can. Loyal Coke fans who were forced into drinking New Coke were furious with the company and Classic Coke was returned to the shelves. The dominance of Pepsi never eventuated and Coca-Cola is still the preferred drink across the globe.

Why go from here to there?

All change is moving from here to there. It is taking the promised land of more productivity, innovation and profitability. That requires the leader to provide a clear vision of two things: where your organisation is now and why the change is necessary and desirable. The change process is about building a bridge to a better future with a story that is compelling enough for people to follow.

In fact, failure to convince people of the value of the change is the main flaw of change programs. Leaders who do not communicate the purpose are asking their followers to take a loss with no certainty of something better. And loss is an intensely human experience that can cost your company trust and morale.

Finally, the leader themselves needs to be in the change, not above it. They need to feel the twists and turns and roadblocks and adapt accordingly. As Nassim Taleb writes in Skin in the Game, it is a late 20th century phenomenon that political and corporate leaders are removed from the changes they implement, resulting is more reckless decisions.

When we are leading change, we need to adopt the humility to admit when we are wrong and the agility to make subtle changes in our course to get us to the final destination.

For more learning on the D.I.V.E change process visit us at The Change Chef.

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