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DevOps / Tech Life

The Leadership Impact Curve

As a leader, you want to effect change. But too much change can be detrimental and a sign of an unhealthy team. Here’s how to find the right balance.
Nov 10th, 2023 5:30am by
Featued image for: The Leadership Impact Curve
Image from Philip Steury Photography on Shutterstock.

This is the second in a three-part series. Read Part 1: Help! I’m a Leader Now.

So you’re a leader. You’ve spent a long time talking to a lot of people across your organization, analyzing competitors, thinking about strategy and making a plan for what your team should do next. You’ve gotten buy-in for the way you’re framing what’s ahead. You’ve just finished presenting your new way forward to your team.

It went well. The storytelling was clear. People were nodding their heads. There were even a few laughs where you’d put some funny gifs in your slide deck. You did a lot of leadership work, and you shipped.

Now what?

What should happen next? After you “do a leadership,” how much change should you expect? What amount of change is going to generate the most impact for your organization?

Enter the Leadership Impact Curve

This graph shows the value to your organization of any given amount of change after a leadership intervention.

The middle of the curve is going to vary from situation to situation. Is a lot of change the most valuable? A little change? But the extremes of the graph — what happens at 0% change and 100% change — are constant. Both extremes are bad.

Knowing why each one is bad, and knowing that this graph has those two endpoints, can help you track the impact of your leadership work. Even better, it can help you tailor what level of change to push for and how to moderate the impact you have as a leader on a large team.

Let’s look at that 0% case first. In this situation, you’ve done a lot of work to plan for something new and shipped a big message. Then nothing changed. If nothing has changed, you’ve not added any value. You’ve wasted your time, by definition.

The circumstances that underlie this waste, though, could be a couple of different things, and it’s worth examining them more closely.

Outside Forces Are Really Driving

If nothing changed, it could be that the thing you tried to affect is actually governed by something outside your control. For example, if you’re trying to shift a roadmap to an exciting new problem area, but there’s a regulatory compliance deadline coming up, no amount of storytelling is going to change the priority for a team. Similarly, there could be other factors governing the team’s behavior, such as incentive structures, ingrained cultural factors or conflicting leadership directives.

Any of these situations is a problem. Before you ship your strategic message, you should figure out if you’re going to have these problems and factor them in.

All You Did Was Reinforce the Status Quo

I’ve seen this happen more times than you might expect. If a leader is in charge of an organization, and they go think really hard about the state of their organization, it’s pretty easy for that leader to come back and believe that they’ve already been doing the right thing all along. The presentation to the team in this situation usually offers a new strategic frame, maybe a new set of metrics, but no urgency to change, to learn, to grow.

If you find yourself about to give that presentation, and your “new way forward” looks a lot like the old way, take another look. There’s always something that can be improved, something that an organization can focus on to learn. And if you really don’t need anything to change, maybe cancel the presentation and let everyone work.

Now let’s look at the case where everything changes — that 100% situation. Those are also bad, but for different reasons.

Maximum Churn Tax

All changes have a cost, and much of that cost is invisible to leaders. The time spent churning inside the team trying to figure out how to adapt, the doubt and reconsideration that individuals go through when changing direction, and the conflict about how to adapt to the new reality all take time, require focus and introduce delay. None of that delay shows up in a report to leadership. It’s all invisible.

That’s the churn tax. To make any change at all you have to pay some churn tax. It’s inevitable. When you change everything, you’re paying too much.

The Team Has No Confidence in Their Existing Work

The teams you work with are full of smart people who are moving toward a shared goal already. And you, as a leader, have an outsize ability to influence what people do.

If it only takes one presentation for absolutely everything to change, that could signal that the work you’re sweeping away was of very low value. It definitely signals that the teams doing the work are willing to do whatever you ask without question. Different organizations, and different business cultures, have different standards for questioning leadership. In any situation, the presence of good discussion and dialogue means benefiting from all the brains in the room. No discussion, and rapid acquiescence, can be red flags.

An agile software organization can, in fact, turn on a dime. But if all you do as the driver is swing the wheel from one direction to the other, you’re not going to get very far down the road.

Absolutely Everything We Were Doing Yesterday Was Wrong

If the right thing really is to change everything right now in response to the new message from leadership, that means that everything we were doing before was the wrong thing — 100% wrong. The likelihood that no one in your organization was on the right track is pretty much 0%.

It can be tempting to make a radical change when you take over an organization. You might want to really put your stamp on things, show the value of your leadership and “demonstrate your own impact.” Be very, very wary of that impulse, and be careful what you say. Check yourself by examining the value being delivered today by every part of the strategy. That’s what people believe in now, and they’ve probably got good reasons.

If everything changes the minute you open your mouth, you’re throwing the baby out with the bath water. And if everything was going so wrong before, you shouldn’t have waited this long to make a change.

So What Should Happen?

Something in the middle. When you “do a leadership,” you’re looking for some change. Look for healthy adjustment. People in your organization should ask a lot of questions. (Footnote: In fact, you should have asked them a lot of questions while you formed your plan.) They need to know the why. That’s not because they’re challenging your authority or think you’re wrong. It’s because they need to know how to prioritize the new thing alongside everything else, and for that, they need to know the why.

You should expect to learn things about the new plan from how people digest it and work to adopt it.

You should try to figure out the most important couple of things to change, communicate an outcome and let people figure out how to make it happen. That way you’ll see the minimal disruption to get the outcome you need.

You should look for minimum surprise, panic and confusion. If you’ve done your job well, people will feel secure in how to work toward the new goal. If you haven’t communicated well, you’ll see team members afraid to act or ask questions, nervous about how to do their jobs and afraid to share what they’re working on. If you’re communicating well, you’ll participate in a healthy dialogue about not just the why, but also the what, the who and the how.

The exact shape of the leadership impact curve changes case by case, but in every case, no change is a waste of your time, and everything changing is a waste of everyone else’s time.

For more practical management advice born out of years of experience working with software teams in a wide variety of industries, download the ebook “Mindsets and Tactics for New Leaders of Software Teams.”

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