CEOs: Do you even lift?

Last week I witnessed a personal success in the family: My mother-in-law committed to gym training! She decided to try it once and ended up signing a membership on the spot – she will now be lifting regularly as a means to alleviate her arthrosis and to regain lost agility as well as profit from better posture, stability and cardiac activity.
What makes this success particularly great in my eyes is that she initially wanted to take a completely different route: She was going to ask a doctor for restorative injections into her knee and maybe some pills she could take – she was not keen to make any lifestyle changes.

You can see where I’m going with this. When an organisation’s management diagnoses shortcomings that are really the result of time-worn processes and misaligned practices, there is a huge temptation to go for the quick fix: Inject a bit of Scrum or some other Agile wonder drug into the business unit that aches the most, take some Lean pills for the pain and carry on with business as usual.
The result is a temporary masking of the symptoms that can hardly alleviate the underlying causes but might very well screw you over long-term: It’s like repeatedly hitting the “Snooze” button on your alarm, expecting it to stop time.

The alternative isn’t easy: One of the first changes my mother-in-law is going to feel is pain in the form of DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness). But like growing pain, this is a good kind of pain, a signal that something extraordinary is about to happen: You have strained your system to the degree of causing micro-damage to your muscles and your body is working to rebuild them – and to make them stronger than they were before so they will be fit to cope with the challenge next time! I’ve seen this kind of pain referred to as “weakness leaving the body.”

If you choose to respond to organisational arthrosis with innovation you can expect similar pains: You’re exposing a system used to static planning and predictability to a world that is increasingly VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous) – there’s going to be a lot of muscle damage to management, creatives and processes as you strain to perform unfamiliar movements at high intensity.
But after a few months of training, DOMS stops occurring – your muscles become used to continuous training and constant adaptation to higher weights as well as more challenging exercises. Your posture improves and maybe you even start to eat healthier, sleep better and cut back on tobacco or alcohol as a side effect. Suddenly you start to enjoy going to the gym and not just the self-satisfaction when you’re leaving it: Before you know it you’ve made a fundamental lifestyle change, taken control over your body – and you keep going, happy with the new you.

Such rewarding success cannot be achieved by symptomatic remedies; it’s not attainable through solving singular problems. It demands advancing the entire system, making it better than it could have been before: Just as my mother-in-law cannot expect her knee to do this on its own you can’t expect a single team/project or a “Chief Innovation Officer” to administer a shot and some pills to the effect. You must take the whole organisation to the gym – and that means CEOs must take the lead.

And, also important to remember: Like working out, organisational innovation is not something that ever reaches the finish line – that’s also why regarding change as a journey isn’t really helpful: You’re never going to be done or arrive; the goal is to master constant adaption and to keep evolving.

My mother-in-law is quite excited to see how much agility she can develop. I’m sure it will be a noticeable change – you CEOs better get going if you want to keep up!

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