You see it at intersections every day. When the traffic signal turns green the first car slowly pulls away while the next car in line remains until a safe space has developed and it then eases into the intersection. The third car is slightly more confident of the traffic flow but it too allows for a gap before proceeding. The process repeats itself down the line of vehicles until seconds or even minutes have passed before the final car begins to move.
This despite the fact that every single driver sees the light turn green at exactly the same time and could, theoretically, all proceed simultaneously.
But drivers are cautious in a line of traffic precisely because they cannot know the intentions of the vehicle in front of them. Is that person going forward as expected or will he suddenly stop, abruptly change lanes or make an un-signaled turn? We slow the pace of acceleration to avoid a potential wreck.
This may be the story of your company. The senior executive team unveils a major new priority with clever communications plans but when the signal is given to go, the organization’s response is sluggish. Top managers embrace the fresh agenda but middle managers and individual contributors creep along with a wait and see attitude, deadening the pace of change.
Perhaps there is a lesson for us in those roaring NASCAR race cars traveling 200 miles per hour, side by side, with only inches separating the tail of the leader and nose of the pursuer. NASCAR drivers travel at astounding speeds by maintaining a shared direction and a common goal. Every driver knows where everyone else is headed. While they may jostle for position there is little concern that the driver ahead is going to suddenly slam on the breaks or make a right hand turn.
Like street drivers at an intersection your employees may well be waiting a safe distance until they see their manager really commit to the initiative. They may have been so burnt by repeated abrupt changes in strategy, process or org structures that their adoption intervals are becoming larger not smaller. What’s worse, their dawdling response to a new program may be perceived by the business as an indictment of the merits of the initiative itself, leading well-meaning senior executives to replace it too soon with yet another project, only reinforcing employee skepticism about the staying power of programs.
Change agents may be the popular business celebrities. But there is an equally true business case for stability. It enables organizations, like race car drivers, to accelerate with confidence toward a common checkered flag. By affording new initiatives their full lifespan the organization actually grows less cautious about committing to change in general. This enables truly good ideas to succeed faster, and it also causes poor ideas to fail legitimately, that is from poor conception rather than slothful execution. Reducing the time to true success or legitimate failure saves a company money and resources. So the velocity of change should not be measured by the raw number of initiatives but rather by the discipline of the organization in committing its human capital to them.
That discipline happens when the organization’s history does not include abrupt turns in the middle of the race.
Pay attention the next time you are the last car in a line of traffic at a signal. Watch the behavior of the drivers in front of you. If your job was first and foremost to get as many vehicles through the intersection as possible during a green light cycle, what creative ideas might you come up with to make that happen? Are there analogues for those ideas that could speed the pace of change in your business or organization?