We don’t ordinarily remember Ulysses S. Grant as someone who cowered easily. After all, under Grant’s leadership the Union Army defeated the Confederate military, effectively ending the Civil War with the surrender of Robert E. Lee’s army at Appomattox. That hard-won victory came at a price, however, when Grant faced formidable adversaries like Lieutenant General Nathan Bedford Forrest. One of Grant’s friends reported that this particular southern general “was the only Confederate cavalryman of whom Grant stood in much dread.”
What caused Grant’s anxiety? A cavalry and military commander, Forrest distinguished himself as one the war’s most unusual figures. Possessing a gift for both strategy and tactics, Forrest created and established new doctrines for mobile forces, earning him the nickname “The Wizard of the Saddle.”
We remember Forrest for the New York Tribune’s erroneous quote that his strategy was to “git thar fustest with the mostest.” He actually said he “got there first with the most men,” a less colorful but more accurate explanation of Forrest’s success.
Forrest didn’t realize at the time that he had defined the characteristics of a culture of change. Typically, organizations change when the pain of staying where they are overcomes the fear of change. Sometimes, however, people don’t perceive the pain before significant damage has occurred.
Exceptional organizations do better. They change proactively rather than reactively, and they do so quickly, not necessarily in accordance with a three-to-five-year strategy. Of course, leaders of exceptional organizations keep the mission and vision of the company in mind as they make decisions and force trade-offs, but they do so at the speed of change, not the pace of the typical glacier.
You won’t get there first with the most, or strike fear in the hearts of your competitors if you insist on adhering to the accepted rules of the industry or your company’s status quo position. Just because “we’ve always done it that way” doesn’t mean you should do it that way in the future. As I always ask my clients, “If you weren’t already doing that, would you decide now to do it?” Breakthrough growth demands actively changing rules, mindsets, and habits. This is how you can do all three:
- When you have the competitive advantage, know and remind yourselves what it will take to maintain your lead.
- When you don’t have the lead, keep top of mind the areas in which the competition is outrunning you.
- Create killer gaps when you’re in the lead as Apple and Enterprise have done.
- Constantly examine brand and market leadership. Are they what they should be?
- Develop strategic agility so that you can respond to unexpected and unwelcome change.
- Systematize duplication. Centralize things like HR, finance, and IT. Create matrix reporting relationships so that functions report to both function heads and their operations lead.
- Have so much talent that it doesn’t matter if key talent leaves. GE and Emerson hire top performers, so they adjust adeptly to attrition.
- Expand and grow so quickly that you don’t lose your talent. Apple doesn’t lose people because they keep growing so fast that an individual’s job expands, even with no title or structural change.
- Embrace uncertainty and ambiguity.
- Reward success and tolerate failure, as long as it’s done in the name of innovation.
The biggest barrier to adopting strategic agility is internal and simple: reinvent, reengineer, and become the architect of your organization’s future. You’ll know you have the formula right when you see leaders continuously seeking new opportunities and overcoming challenges, delegation of both decisions and tasks, people showing obvious commitment to continued improvement, and everyone showing a burning passion to succeed.
When you get the formula right, a culture of change-where your best people will do their best work-can’t help but follow.