Managing Change
ATD Blog

The Culture of Mid-Stream Strategy Changes

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Mid-stream strategy changes, if not handled well, can have the same deleterious affects on an organization that smoking has on a body.

A Typical Scenario

When a corporate strategy is initially set, it is to support and reach some goal that the board or the CEO wants. So, perhaps a three-year goal (a revenue target, a market share goal, a market penetration goal) is set and a strategy to meet that goal is discussed and agreed upon. VPs may lobby for more resources to meet their part of the strategy. So far, so good. The VPs go their way to disseminate instructions for their part of the strategy to their business units/departments.

Then six months or a year later, the CEO or board wants to add or change something. Maybe as a result of a new fad or something they heard at a convention or as a reaction to some disruptor in the industry or market. Now, without the benefit of an updated strategy session, the CEO meets with the VPs to implement this mid-stream change to the strategy. This is the culture of implementing changes—vis-à-vis strategy—on the fly.

Next, the CEO meets with the VPs and announces this new strategy, which may not even be a core competency of the organization. The VPs are expected to take on this new strategy, which is further broken down into different projects, and may not be given additional resources to carry it out. Now, the VPs must figure out how to integrate this new strategy, which turns into projects, into the rest of the strategy that is already in motion.

The VPs to whom it is assigned meets with their directors and/or managers and delegates the work of this new strategy (projects). Again, this is usually done without providing any additional resources. The directors and managers must decide if they will actually keep the work and do it themselves or delegate that down again to the next level, like a frontline supervisor or an employee.

The supervisor or employee has little or no say in whether they will do this work. It is an expectation that they will do it. After all, every job description has a clause at the bottom that says they agree to do their core work, “and other work as assigned.” Employees cannot really respond, “This is not my job.” This is part of an organization’s culture.


In addition, the employee now tasked with the assignment may not know anything about this subject, may not be in any way qualified to be in charge of this project/task, or have any passion about it. Those concerns are not typically taken into account. The job just must be done; it came down from the CEO. Who is the employee to question it?

A Metaphor to Consider

Now, think about this in terms of the body. You decide to start smoking. When you smoke, you are inhaling thousands of chemicals into your lungs, 69 of which can actually directly lead to cancer. You suck this tar into your lungs, and its effects make it difficult for your lungs to absorb oxygen and causes carbon monoxide buildup in the body. This can literally starve the body of oxygen. Symptoms can include a shortness of breath, unhealthy weight loss, and a slew of other symptoms in the heart and even reproductive organs. Consequently, your body can’t function well. It’s harder to climb stairs, to run, to exert yourself beyond short distances.

So, why do people smoke? Some people believe they will receive some benefit from smoking, such as decreased hunger, calmed nerves, stress relief, increased focus, a coolness factor. The consequences, however, are just an afterthought.
How does this equate to changing strategy mid-stream? Well, it is analogous in that the introduction of a new strategy (think: smoking) into an already functioning organization (think: body) creates the need to adjust. Just as the body reacts to the effects caused by smoking, the organization has to adapt to accommodate this new strategy.


Bringing this back to the CEO, it isn’t that the organization shouldn’t be nimble enough to switch gears when there is a valid business need to do so. If there is a positive outcome to be had, be sure that the consequences of shifting mid-stream are not an afterthought. If this is truly a business need, and it creates some version of increased ROI, by all means move forward.

However, if this happens too frequently, it may mean that the CEO needs to fend off a change-happy board. It may mean the CEO needs to allow and trust the three-year strategy to play out as written without overburdening the organization (the body) with a new mid-stream string of projects (even good projects handled improperly can be like tar in the lungs). Lastly, the CEO should ensure that this new strategy will not create more harm than good. Enter systems thinking (remember: even good short-term outcomes like increased revenue can create longer-term bad consequences for other parts of the body/organization).

A Better Way

To avoid the unfortunate consequences of poorly handled mid-stream strategy changes that can have a deleterious effect on the organization (just as smoking does on the body), the leadership team must make good conscious decisions that will make the mid-stream change a positive one:

  • Don’t make a habit out of it. Mid-stream strategy changes keep everyone on edge—not in a good way.
  • If frequent mid-stream changes are necessary, rethink how you set strategy.
  • Put the changed strategy in the business unit or functional area that has the expertise to handle it (not the VP that’s first to raise their hand because they think it will be a good challenge, because they want to look good or because they want to climb the corporate ladder by saying yes to everything).
  • Add new resources to the VP that ultimately takes the new project—and don’t make them bend over backwards to get it.
  • Be sure that the director and/or manager understand how this will fit into the existing strategy or replaces it. Confusion is the enemy to success here.
  • Communicate with all the business units/departments so that they know (systems thinking) how this might affect them and be able to make their own adjustments to account for the changed inputs.
  • Be sure the person or team who will be doing the work are alleviated of other responsibilities so that the new projects have a chance of succeeding.
  • Assign work to someone who actually has the knowledge, skills, and talent to do it, not just the person who is overburdened the least.
  • Make sure the manager updates the annual goals of the those taking on the new projects so that the successful implementation doesn’t adversely affect the person who is responsible for its success.

Just like the body will tell you when it’s not operating at capacity due to smoking (as demonstrated by coughing, shortness of breath, headaches, joint pain), the organization that is not operating at capacity due to incorrectly handled mid-stream strategy changes will demonstrate an organization’s version of bad breath (diminished morale) , unhealthy weight loss (employee turnover), lack of stamina (little follow-through), diminished capacity (overwork/disability), shortness of breath (delays), lack of oxygen (reworks), and other unintended consequences like silos, conflicts and animosity between departments, and poor customer relations. To avoid this, be sure that mid-stream strategy changes are infrequent, and if they are necessary, that they are handled in a way that will avoid the predictable, ugly consequences of introducing a well-intentioned but poorly-planned strategy change mid-stream.

About the Author

Devorah Allen, CPLP, is a consultant in HR and Learning & Development at Allen-Solorio Consultancy.

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