Many years ago I was proposing a significant change to the organization to address the challenges we were facing and to align with the strategic goals. My mentor advised me to take only a half step in the direction of my vision. At that time, I didn’t understand the reasoning, and I wondered if we weren`t settling for less by taking an intermediate step. We still had a long way to go, and I felt frustrated because of the slow progress.
Looking back at that moment, I call my mentor’s decision strategic patience. Strategic patience is one of the skills many true believers struggle with. Visionaries are known for always evolving in their minds a clear image of an end goal. In their vision, customer needs, market trends, organizational resourcing and challenges, and people and culture are the pieces of the puzzle they collect and connect to build the canvas of the future. Because of this constant refinement, they are much more advanced than others in the clarity and enthusiasm they have. Enthusiasm is contagious and forward-moving. With their enthusiasm, they can mobilize people behind their vision.
The vision of change can be inspiring, yet its execution can be frightening. That is why pacing the execution of the work is critical to achieving the end vision. Individuals can’t adapt to too many changes at once, even when the changes are seen as positive. Even the most positive changes come with a loss and we need time to adapt to all changes. Changes in our environment, such as moving to a new country, working for a new company, changing roles, losing a loved one, and changing social relationships, can easily disrupt our internal stability. The same is true for organizations and communities. People can only handle so much loss at a time.
Yet, pacing the work is very challenging given the internal and external commitments we have to a cause and to the people who believe in it. From the outside, pacing the work can be seen as slow, avoiding difficult issues and putting off challenging choices. But in reality, leaders are responsible for preparing people for the work that lies ahead. Taking control and making change possible requires both strategic patience and strategic thinking.
Here are a few ideas that allow you as a leader to strengthen your strategic patience:
Listen to people’s challenges, fear, and confusion.
Bring conflicts to the surface. Conflict exists even when it’s not expressed.
Ask the difficult questions.
Create a holding environment where people speak openly about difficult issues. This will allow solutions and progress to surface from within the organization. The motivation to change will emerge from within.
Be visible and present.
Create an anchor in the chaos by discussing shared values, structuring decision-making, and breaking big problems into parts.
Make short-term gains by prioritizing challenges that can be addressed with available resources.
Manage your own emotions in the process.
Moving fast feels exciting and satisfying. It gives us validation that our vision is achievable. However, when our goal is to drive systemic and sustainable change, value can only be created when the change is embedded in the day-to-day operations of the organization. Just because we understand the change and the process, it does not mean that others understand it - both emotionally and rationally.
I am thankful to my mentor for the wisdom he shared with me in my career evolution. I am most thankful, though, for the role-modeling of strategic patience. Even though it took me many years to understand its value, my vision would not have been possible without practicing it.