A crisis is an opportunity for change

Many engineering leaders faced resistance to change during stable, business-as-usual times.

"If it ain't broke, don't fix it" - doesn't it sound familiar?

In regular, "chill" times, people usually don't see why they should change their ways. They're comfortable with how things are and might be scared to try something new that could rock the boat.

There are many reasons behind that:

  • Lack of Perceived Need: If things are going well, there's often less perceived need for change.
  • Complacency and Organizational Inertia: Success can lead to complacency. There may be little incentive to take risks or disrupt successful routines in such an environment. This inertia can be difficult to overcome as people tend to stick to familiar patterns.
  • Fear of the Unknown: When there is no pressing need to change, the risks associated with the unknown outcomes of change can seem to outweigh the potential benefits, leading to resistance.
  • Lack of Urgency: Without the pressure of a crisis, it can be difficult to create a sense of urgency that motivates people to support and engage in the change process.
  • Political Resistance: Change can threaten established power structures within an organization. In the absence of a crisis, those with power may resist changes that could undermine their influence or position.

When a crisis hits

When a crisis hits, it's a whole different story. Suddenly, there's a real need to do things differently. For you, as a leader, a crisis is not just a problem; it's an opportunity. It's time to step up, bring fresh ideas, and guide your team in adapting and overcoming challenges.

The concept of "crisis as a catalyst for change" is not just anecdotal; it's well-established in academic research and business history.

Here are a few examples:

  • General Motors' bankruptcy in 2009: This crisis led to a company restructuring that was not achievable in the years leading up to the financial collapse.
  • IBM's near-collapse in the early 1990s: It led to a business transformation under CEO Lou Gerstner, who turned the company around by changing its culture and business model.
  • The COVID-19 pandemic: Many companies accelerated digital transformation, remote work, and restructured their operations in ways they had not considered necessary before the crisis.

Academic research also supports this hypothesis. For instance, the Punctuated Equilibrium Theory suggests that organizations go through long periods of stability (equilibrium), interrupted by short bursts of fundamental change (revolutionary periods), often triggered by a crisis.
Institutional Theory suggests that organizations change in response to pressures, which can be amplified during crises.

Types of crisis

The covid-19 pandemic or a company's collapse sounds extreme, but there are "smaller" crises, engineering leaders may face:

  • Departure of key teammates or significant part of a team. Know-how is floating away, there are significant delivery delays, and good colleagues disappear. But it's also a great opportunity to step back, revisit priorities, redistribute responsibilities, and refresh the team.
  • Core 3rd party service is down. When your cloud provider is not available, or your 3rd party auths service doesn't work it's you basically stuck. Some things may be hard to mitigate (like multi-cloud env), but others, like bringing alternative log-in methods can make your system more flexible in the future.
  • Bad or no product-market fit. You built something for a few months that your customers didn't want. While a serious threat, esp. for early-stage startups, it's also an opportunity to work on your agility, and product testing methodologies, pivoting with your product, and shifting the mindset from "building the code" to "solving customers' problems".

Crisis shakes everyone awake. It gets the team's attention and can make it easier for you as a leader to try something new and have people rally with you. So, while no one wishes for hard times, they can be a hidden opportunity for you to steer your team towards innovation and come out stronger on the other side.