Beware of Low-hanging Fruit!

When change management professionals step in to share their knowledge of how organizations can work better, they come with stories. Stories about successful shifts in strategy and process. Stories of failure. The best might be stories about how to design for success—how might we start? Shelley Kirkpatrick suggests that we think carefully about what we choose to do first because that first step sounds simple, and isn’t. Read on.—Editor

Photo by Sambazon on Unsplash

Author: Shelley Kirkpatrick

At the division’s annual strategic planning offsite, the facilitator leads the division through several planning exercises. By mid-afternoon, the walls are filled with objectives and goals, along with brainstormed ideas for reaching the goals. As the team takes stock of all of the ideas, one of the senior team members states, “Let’s start with the low-hanging fruit!” Everyone nods in agreement. The team starts talking about what they need to do next to tackle the easy items on the list.

What is the likely result of the offsite? Unfortunately, it is that little change will occur. Most of the ideas put forth will not be acted upon. Starting with low-hanging fruit is a good intention that can shut down meaningful change.

No one would dare disagree with the idea of starting with low-hanging fruit. It makes intuitive sense to start with easy items before proceeding to harder ones. The leader may assume that some people are not on board with the changes, and therefore starting with easy-to-tackle items will convince them that the changes are working.

Low-hanging fruit is not to be confused with the change management principle of quick wins. The quick-wins principle assumes that once everyone understands a problem and develops an initial solution, team leadership can roll out the solution to those who are most receptive to the change. The groups that follow will enjoy the benefits of lessons learned until the last and least receptive group profits from a refined solution. Rolling out a change first to a receptive audience is very different from only rolling out easy-to-tackle parts of an overall solution.

Leaders, especially those in a new role, often feel pressure to start tackling problems right away—they want to demonstrate their immediate contribution to the organization’s success. However, that tendency may work against them. One study examined 5,400 leaders who were new to their role; the leaders’ managers were asked to rate each leader’s performance. Leaders who achieved a quick win scored nearly 20% higher on overall performance than those who hadn’t. Digging into the data a bit more, the researchers identified a paradox—highly rated leaders achieved a quick win by uniting their team with a shared purpose or goal but lower rater leaders focused on achieving the quick win at the expense of their team, falling into several traps.

Lower rated leaders tried to get a quick win, but made the mistake of focusing too much on details, reacting negatively to criticism, or intimidating others. For example, one leader was eager to prove herself after she was promoted to a district manager at a fast food restaurant chain. She noticed that in-store displays and advertising were inconsistent across the 20 restaurants. Focusing her attention on understanding each store’s color scheme, open counter space, and window space for ads resulted in her team seeing no role for themselves in her efforts. She failed to foster shared understanding that would enable the store managers to apply her advertising ideas to their locations. The researchers concluded that the lower rated leaders may have been “hell-bent on securing quick wins.” They failed in achieving a quick win, paradoxically, because of their relentless pursuit of the quick win. In contrast, the highly rated leaders managed to unite and motivate their team to achieve the quick win together. This set them up for continued, long-term success.

Starting with the easy-to-tackle items may detract from implementing a sustainable change for several reasons. First, the organization may not really have a handle on the root cause of the problem. In all likelihood, they won’t be able to address the underlying problem if they only pursue the easy action items. For example, an agency leadership team that meets to review their annual Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey results may need to address why employees lack trust in leadership and then work to repair that trust before tackling more surface-level issues. Starting with easier-to-implement actions, such as a recognition program or division social events, may be misinterpreted in the absence of trust. Staff members may not perceive the efforts as respectful and kindly. Instead, employees may feel that a happy hour is “mandatory fun” or may be demotivated by initiatives that are seen as less than sincere.

Second, complex organizational problems often require that solutions be put in place in a certain sequence. Some actions may serve as a foundation or precursor needed for other actions to be effective. For example, a project that has been underway for a year and is getting off track may require numerous actions to get back on track. Some of those actions may be easy to achieve, such as asking project staff to deliver more frequent status updates or purchasing a new project management tool to track work completion. Other actions may be more difficult to implement but are necessary conditions for project success. For example, the project leader may need to clarify project goals with senior leadership and then work with project staff to help them understand how their individual contributions impact the overall project goals. In short, a new PM tool won’t fix that.

Third, solutions rarely roll out perfectly the first time. As an example, an agency created and piloted a leadership development program. In an attempt to demonstrate a quick win, the agency rushed to conduct a bare-bones pilot that had not been tailored to participants’ jobs. Not surprisingly, the bare-bones content had minimal impact on participants’ leadership competencies and unit performance, and the rapid rollout made logistics very difficult. The agency concluded that leadership development doesn’t work.

A similar result can occur when managers run pilots under optimal conditions rather than representative conditions. A better approach, according to Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson, is to design a pilot to generate knowledge about what won’t work, not simply to ensure a “fragile success.” If, for example, a pilot of a leadership development program includes only rising stars and high potential employees—the management version of low-hanging fruit—the program will appear to be a resounding success yet fail to address the needs of most managers. Program designers taking the low-hanging-fruit route miss the opportunity to learn how to adapt the program so that it meets the needs of all future participants.

Fourth, team members may view starting with low-hanging fruit as the leader’s way of avoiding addressing an underlying problem. By starting with the seemingly easy items, team members’ commitment to change may dwindle if they expend discretionary effort without payoff. Momentum is likely going to slow down when the team starts to tackle harder issues, undermining support for the new approach as well as confidence in the leader.

A better approach might be to start by probing for the fundamental problem. Rather than assume that the problem and its causes are well understood, change management professionals often start by designing a series of short experiments to diagnose and confirm the problem and its cause. Edmondson emphasizes the value of “failing better to succeed faster.” She considers the ability to learn from failure to be an essential skill for both leaders and team members. Efforts by organizations to become learning organizations, according to Edmondson, are often not translated into “the day-to-day mindset and activities of learning from failure.” Rather than trying to achieve quick wins, she recommends achieving (or identifying) small failures and then learning more about why those failures occurred.

In her book, Teaming, Edmondson describes how a chief of radiology explored the 10-15% error rate in reading mammograms. This error rate had become an accepted practice and was often due to missing small tumors. When he analyzed data sets from multiple mammogram readings, he found visible patterns in each radiologist’s performance. Based on this analysis, doctors received specific actionable feedback that allowed them to improve their diagnostic accuracy.

Once a team has a good understanding of the problem, it will be easier to identify possible solutions. Having learned a great deal about the problem from the diagnosis phase, it will also be easier to build support for the solution, as well as the specific steps needed to address the problem, regardless of how easy or hard each step is. One method that has been successful in isolating problems and generating new solutions is design thinking. Consider inviting people with a range of perspectives—including squeaky wheels and those opposed to current solutions—to a design-thinking session where a facilitator walks a group through a human-centered approach to viewing the problem and possible solutions from many perspectives. Their insights can then be used to design possible solutions that are tested, refined, and implemented.

Let’s revisit the division’s strategic planning offsite to explore a different approach: By mid-afternoon, the walls are filled with objectives and goals, along with brainstormed ideas for reaching the goals. As the team takes stock of all the ideas, one of the senior team members states, “How might we reach our goals? Can we spend some time thinking about what is holding us back reaching our goals?” A less senior team member contributes, “I can help arrange to pull in some customers who have been critical of our recent products, along with staff from other units that we coordinate with. It would help to get their views on our products.” Another team member adds, “They might give us some new ideas for how we can meet our customers’ needs. We could work with our customers to design a few short experiments to test out what is really holding us back. Once we get a better understanding, then we can take the right steps in the right order.”

Shelley Kirkpatrick is an organizational change management principal at MITRE. She specializes in developing and conducting organizational assessments on a variety of topics, including organizational agility. She holds a PhD in organizational behavior from the University of Maryland at College Park and a BS from Bowling Green State University. Shelley is currently an adjunct professor at George Mason University. She has previously taught at Carnegie Mellon University and The American University.

See also

Thinking Outside the Boxes and Lines

© 2018 The MITRE Corporation. All rights reserved. Approved for public release. Distribution unlimited. Case number 18-0879.

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