Is It Time to Lead Imperfect Change?

May 31, 2021 2 min read
Is It Time to Lead Imperfect Change?

Detailed strategies and excessive planning can cripple your vision for business change. Seeking perfection does not guarantee success.

Indeed, these things often leads to paralysis. In contrast, leading imperfect change can propel the organization forward.

In How to Sustain Organizational Change—These 5 Vital Ways, I describe the role projects have when implementing beneficial business change. I argue that sustainable change is achievable by engaging people and increasing a sense of urgency.

And the metaphor I use, Dolphins, Not Whales, is about encouraging quick wins—delivering results rapidly—by breaking large-scale change into smaller manageable chunks.

An incomplete solution that allows forward movement is better than no solution and no movement. – Dan Rockwell

How to Lead Imperfect Business Change

Some years ago, I was engaged in a large-scale endeavour that promised to deliver significant benefit to several organizations. It was true that a lot of effort had gone into preparing the vision, strategic plans, business case, specifications, design documents and so on.

However, most people were unaware of these efforts and believed progress was slow. We lost momentum and expectations were low.

This got me thinking. If we had taken a good-enough approach, would we have achieved something sooner? Would we be better off by leading imperfect change?

We often depict organizations as machines. For example, the surgical team within a hospital or fire-fighters responding to an emergency follow the machine metaphor. In these circumstances, it’s right that they work like a well-oiled machine. Failure of one part can be catastrophic.

However, the machine metaphor doesn’t fit the rapidly changing organization where we need creativity and innovation. Since business change is complex, the organization needs flexibility and the ability to adapt as context changes.

Imperfection is beauty, madness is genius… – Marilyn Monroe

So, back to my question: would we be better off leading imperfect change? In other words, should we replace detailed planning with documents that describe the general direction the organization is heading? And should this approach also apply to business planning?

What I’m saying is this: a detailed planning doesn't guarantee outcomes. Because the modern organization and the environment in which it operates is significantly different to the traditional machine-metaphor, a prescriptive approach no longer works where there is complexity.

As Kotter says, sustaining change needs urgency. And, traditional approaches to management tend to put the brakes on change. Therefore, we need courage to take risks plus an appetite for leading imperfect business change.

As I’ve said before, successful business change requires momentum and the creation of short-term wins. Keeping things simple and letting strategy emerge may help us achieve this.


Do you think organizations spend too much time analysing and over-specifying when they design and plan business change? Can simplicity overcome complexity?

You are welcome to share your thoughts and experience in the comments.

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