The Organizational Lag: Leading Your Team Through Change


I remember how that nagging feeling just underneath the surface of my thoughts turned into a full blown problem. At first it was just some white noise in the back of my head that followed me from meeting to meeting. Then the issue graduated into conscious thought. “I really need to figure that out,” I would think but then do nothing about it. Finally, it began keeping me up at night, invading my thoughts during family time, and generally occupying every available space in my mind. It was now a problem I could no longer ignore.

I spent some time in the problem space, exploring options and tinkering with possible solutions. I talked to a few of my peers on the management team. It turns out they had been seeing the same issues and feeling the same way. We got together and compared notes, riffed on ideas, and came up with an action plan. It was going to be a big change for our company, but it was a good plan and we were actually getting kind of excited about it. My anxiety had turned to optimism. I might have even felt a little bit of, ahem, pride.

It was time to tell the team about the new plan forward. I was sure they would see the logic (dare I say brilliance?) in it. They were all high performers and I had no doubt that they would get it and execute the plan flawlessly. I scheduled a morning meeting and once everyone was seated, I dove in.

I wanted to focus on the good stuff, the solution, so I quickly “level set” on the underlying issue. It went a bit like this…The important metric is dropping and that affects the business like this, but don’t worry, I have a plan! Everybody nodded their heads (I think). And I spent the next fifty minutes explaining the plan, creating action items and owners, getting commitments, and we even had time for five minutes of Q&A (no one asked anything). I left the room thinking to myself, I really am a great leader. Way to go, John.

It started slowly at first. That afternoon I had a 1:1 with one of my direct reports. She told me that some folks on her team were “kinda freaking out.” They understood the plan but weren’t really sure why we were doing it. The next day, a concerned analyst stopped me in the hallway wanting to know where I got the data I was using to draw my conclusions. Later that same day, the VP of Engineering mentioned to me that one of his top engineers asked him if he should start looking for another job. And so it went for the rest of the week. My brilliant leadership moment was, in fact, a complete cluster fuck.

Luckily, I had a great executive coach, Regan. He helped me realize that people process problems like this over time. We looked back over my personal history with this particular problem: nagging feelings, anxiety, resolve to change something, talking to others, finding a solution, then rolling out a plan. I was able to process all of this over a period of weeks. I had become comfortable with the problem and comfortable with the path forward. However, I was now expecting the whole team to process all of that in a one-hour meeting. It was unrealistic, even foolish of me, to expect an organization to be able to adapt that quickly with little familiarity or context about the issue.

The big lesson for me was this: there is always an organizational lag. By this I mean that management often gets access to information ahead of the rank-and-file employees. Therefore, managers are able to process and get comfortable with the information before sharing with the greater team. The team, naturally quite nervous with a major change, now has to catch up to the managers who are bombarding them with action items. This is the lag. The lag is when managers are ready to start acting and the team is asking WTF. The lag is when managers experience increasing optimism and the team experiences increasing anxiety. The lag always exists and you can’t avoid it. What you can do is shrink the lag time.

The lag always exists and you can’t avoid it. What you can do is shrink the lag time.

The antidote to the lag is, of course, to slow things down so that you can move faster. Most leaders have a healthy bias towards action. They’ll skip right over the Why to get to the What and How. The thing is most people are hardwired to want to connect the dots. They want to know why they are doing something. People do their best work when it’s meaningful, when they feel like what they are doing will have an impact on something important.

When you leaders are feeling that urge to jump straight into action, I encourage you to try doubling down on the Why. This will take a little investment upfront but it will decrease the lag time, lessen anxiety, and enable the team to move faster. You’ll find that advance, proactive planning as to how you will shrink the lag pays dividends. (Here’s a little hack to speed things up: show them the organizational lag diagram at the top of this article. It helps everyone to name the lag and talk about it. Everyone can point to where they are in the cycle. It gives the team a sense of ownership and control over the experience.)

When you leaders are feeling that urge to jump straight into action, I encourage you to try doubling down on the Why.

Following the advice of Regan, I went back and spent more time exploring the problem space with my team. I watched for signals that people were ready to move from seeking and understanding to searching for solutions and even execution. Did people generally understand the problem and its impacts? Were the root cause questions satisfied? Were ideas flowing from everyone on the team? Were they past the shock and horror of the problem and itching to get into action? These are the signs that folks are ready to move past the Why and into the What and the How. Sometimes this happens fast and sometimes it’s slower. The amount of time you’ll need to take will depend on the size of the team, the severity of the problem, and the amount of change needed to solve the problem.

In the end, we ended up executing the same plan I had originally come up with, but I am certain, by going back and intentionally shrinking the lag, we executed faster and better. The upfront investment in covering the critical contexts and giving the team some processing time was worth it.

Internal change management is often overlooked in the startup world where everything is expected to move fast and be chaotic. While I agree that is a realistic expectation, I find that a mindfulness of where managers and employees are in processing a change can really help make an anxious, uncertain time more productive and create better outcomes. Shrink the lag!

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Thank you to Regan and Luis for feedback on this article.

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