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26 January 2010 • 10:51 am

Inevitable Lurches

The last couple of weeks have seen a coincidence of two sudden, massive, and mostly unexpected lurches. The magnitude 7.0 earthquake that has devastated Haiti is human tragedy on a scale rarely seen (until one recalls the 2004 Asian tsunami), and was certainly not anticipated by the island’s millions of residents. Nearly as unanticipated was the lurch in the U.S. political landscape, marked by the GOP’s victory in the special election in Massachusetts and the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn limits on corporate participation in election campaigns. I am closely following the aftermath of both Haiti and U.S. politics, since the response to unanticipated change reveals much about the health of the organizations involved.

(I write of Haiti and U.S. politics together only to illustrate a point, and not to imply any comparison between these events. I hope that you will join me and millions of others who have already contributed to one of the many organizations leading Haiti’s earthquake relief efforts.)

In my experience, organizational preparedness for major, unexpected changes varies widely. Most organizations pay lip service, with little more than rueful acknowledgement of the possibility of disruption. Some develop ‘business continuity’ plans, which are targeted at sustaining key assets and processes, like computer systems and networks, in the event of catastrophe. Far fewer have a comprehensive, robust capability to weather the literal and figurative storms of unknown and unexpected events. The most effective organizations prepare not for specific disasters, but with a well-tested process for making effective strategic and tactical decisions in the face of sudden, significant, unexpected change.

Every organization’s strategy is the result of its mission, its internal capabilities, and its external environment. Over time, mission and capability are likely to evolve to reflect the changing realities of the external environment. The normal strategic planning process, when properly executed, entails continuous monitoring of environment and management of capability and strategy itself. Sudden change in the external environment requires rapid and confident recalibration of the strategy. The decision making process is the same, only the time scale is different.

The difficulty with which most organizations mange and execute strategy means that they are ill-equipped to handle the inevitable lurches. Fingers are pointed, emotions flare, poor decisions are made, and must be made again, efforts are wasted, and chaos reigns. By contrast, healthy organizations quickly pick themselves up, look around to understand the new realities, quickly make well-informed decisions, and get on with the urgent tasks at hand.

How will your organization handle the next lurch?

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