Cut-through strategy.

Getting your vision delivered not diluted

One of my friends who advises businesses in Japan, calls it “the refraction layer”, which is a great description. But I prefer the one used by an ex-colleague, many years ago, who called it the “dilute to taste” effect. In different ways, they’re both describing probably the biggest single barrier to change within a business.

If you’ve ever found yourself in the situation where you’re repeating the same request, watching strategic milestones slip away, or the changes or ideas you’ve envisioned failing to materialise, there’s a good chance it’s because your vision has been diluted to the personal tastes of those you’ve tasked with realising it.

Dilute to taste is a form of passive resistance that arises whenever there’s a need for some kind of transformation, when a business needs to change direction or to change the way it works. The greater the scale of change, the more likely it is to emerge, which unfortunately means the more urgent and radical the transformation agenda, the more likely it is to get blocked by that resistance.

The process of dilution is simple to understand. Managers subtly reinterpret the message, to either reduce their personal exposure to failure, or to avoid the perceived threat of resistance within their teams. It’s also relatively simple to mitigate once those two barriers are well understood. The problem is that leaders rarely understand those factors, and instead, tend to revert to one of three behaviour patterns, none of which are especially healthy.

Some leaders channel the late Steve Jobs, becoming increasingly demanding and direct, and in many cases, more authoritarian, in order to bludgeon a way through the resistance and get the change delivered. The issue is that those behaviour patterns stick. They shift the culture of the organisation, echoing and cascading down the ranks as the new way that “things get done around here”. In the short-term it works, but it comes with the longer-term risk of diminishing autonomy, diversity, creativity and constructive dialogue. Jobs pulled that balance off, but I know of many others that didn’t, and paid the price in lost talent and a dearth of innovation further down the line.

Other leaders shift into micro-manager mode, pushing their involvement down into those management roles, delivering the messages, sometimes even directing the programmes themselves in order to force a way through the resistance. Again, this can work as a short-term fix, but it also breaks down trust and confidence between the different levels in the organisation. It might force a path through this time, but the resistance will simply re-emerge at the next opportunity.

The third pattern is suffering in silence, or worse, suffering out loud. I’ll never forget the away-day I spent with the board and executive team of a healthcare organisation, where the CEO publicly berated several of her team for having consistently failed to deliver what she’d asked. It was an ugly session that achieved nothing other than accelerating the CEOs exit several months later.

The only route I’ve seen that consistently and sustainably avoids the dilute to taste effect, is to anticipate it and inoculate against it. And the way to do that, is to increase, not reduce, empowerment and freedom across the management team. By separating the “what” from the “how”, defining what the organisation is facing, what it will need to become in order to succeed, and involving the managers in working out the how, coaching them through the thought process, helping them to work out their approach, and critically, helping them define the resources, skills and support they will need to succeed.

By taking that collaborative approach up front, you’ll get a very clear read, very quickly, on the emotional engagement your managers have with the changes you’re asking them to bring about. The managers who are engaged will also gain confidence from your involvement, particularly in the conversations around capabilities and resources, recognising they will be supported through the process of change. As for the managers who aren’t engaged, well, at least you know what you’re dealing with and have time to consider your options before things start to slide.

Once they can see the other side and the route across; once they know you’ve got their backs and you know they’re up for the challenge, you’re set. Get those in place up front and your strategy will cut through any resistance further down. You won’t need to worry about the dilute to taste effect nor, hopefully, will you need to reach for the wire-frame glasses and turtle-neck jumper any time soon.