Leveraging a Crisis for Growth

In 2018, the University of Virginia was the first #1 seed in the NCAA DI men’s basketball tournament to lose to a #16 seed, the University of Maryland-Baltimore County. This is clearly a metric no team wants to own. A year later, UVA would win the NCAA Tournament for its first national championship. When asked about the turnaround, UVA Head Coach Tony Bennett famously said, “If you learn to use it right, the adversity, it will buy you a ticket to a place you would not have gone any other way.”

Many teams face moments of adversity and failure, but sports coaches and great leaders have learned that adversity can be the greatest motivator for change and alignment if managed effectively. So how do we leverage adversity?

Before we answer this question, we should ask why adversity is such a valuable motivator for change? In change efforts, the initial challenge leaders face is getting everyone to recognize the need and urgency for change. Without this urgency, leaders will face constant battles for commitment throughout the process. But a major crisis, when recognized universally, achieves the urgency objective.

So how can a leader leverage the adversity? Below are a few useful considerations, with support from some of my favorite authors on change.

First, a crisis is a unique opportunity to set a specific vision, something you firmly believe will define success in the future. At no other point will you have greater potential buy-in from everyone than when a crisis occurs. When setting vision, make sure you are creating a model that aligns with the culture of the organization. Edgar Schein has a lot to say on culture besting strategy in almost all situations.

Second, recognize you can’t do it alone. Identify champions, respected in their units, who will wholeheartedly support your plan and who are willing to play critical roles during the process. Build your commitment by connecting your vision with their goals/needs. Francois Dupuy offers advice on how to identify these goals and suggests a focus on managing the resources/constraints you control to help others be successful.

Third, communicate the vision often. Do this consistently, of course, but also in unique ways that will be valued by individuals with diverse needs and expectations. Be creative! This is not a phase to fall back on platitudes and generic messages.

Fourth, be the face of the change. Take ownership for the new direction and why it has meaning to you. This approach should be more than logical strategy — there must be a purpose and value that connects personally to you and broadly to others. Both Daniel Pink and Dan & Chip Heath make good cases that you will improve your chances of success and outcomes by making change an intrinsic reward for others, via connecting to outcomes that are meaningful to them.

Fifth, prepare to adapt. Visions are difficult to implement without missteps and challenges along the way. As long as the overall direction toward the vision is consistent, the steps along the way may change to address issues that arise. Also, Nadler and Tushman offer their Congruence Model to remind us that changes in one area might require shifts in other areas in order to successfully drive broad change. One way to manage these shifts is to build agility into your organization at the beginning by not becoming too reliant on specific individuals, outcomes, or development of new capabilities. There is great advice on how to do this from Chris Fussell.

Sixth, celebrate progress in alignment with the vision. Recognize achievements that reflect steps in the right direction and highlight these to everyone to demonstrate and reinforce progress. When progress is made, start elevating team members who demonstrate behaviors that support the vision.

Finally, never forget that change is hard. If you think you have everything moving on the right track, that is the time when the unknown, unexpected, unlikely influences will jump up and derail your efforts. Stay vigilant and committed to your goals.

With every step and challenge, have metrics that will ensure you are making progress toward your goals. Know that one of the key metrics of leading change successfully is when you begin to see your efforts become less about you and more about others — who are also beginning to drive the change. Even as you continue to ensure change efforts of the entire team are aligned to the same overall goals, that others are stepping up their leadership is the greatest indication you have created a positive direction out of adversity.

Leveraging a Crisis for Growth was originally published in Horizon Performance on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.