Managing at the Leading Edge: Navigating and Piloting Business Strategy at Critical Moments

Today’s VUCA world requires new leadership capabilities to navigate businesses successfully through volatile and uncertain times. Drawing comparisons between the business world and the challenging and often dangerous world of sailing, Managing at the Leading Edge aims to present an evidence based approach to high performance leadership and encourages leaders to think differently about how they successfully manage change.

Written by psychologist Dr Tom Rose, Managing at the Leading Edge takes the reader through a step by step approach to leading in uncertain times. It is anchored in evidence drawn from a research study Rose and his team carried out in 2016. The study surveyed 1,200 middle and senior level managers on business performance, leadership practices and leadership behaviour. They also drew upon 100 interviews of senior and middle level managers and the anecdotes shared in these sessions inspired a number of stories used throughout the book.

Rose asserts that in the context of technological change, globalisation and demographic shifts, old leadership practices will fail as some notable sailing exhibitions have done. Rose compares his work to that of Nathaniel Bowditch, a sailing clerk who lived in colonial Salem, Massachusetts over 200 years ago. Bowditch noticed a pattern of terrible losses of life and property at sea and set out to develop a new set of tools and practices that are still in use today: the American Practical Navigator. Just as Bowditch developed tools to help sailors navigate perilous seas, Rose has set out to develop tools to guide leaders through the choppy seas of business today.

Rose’s model integrates three key functions – navigating, piloting and managing at the leading edge – and is heavily influenced by research carried out by global leadership development organisation, AchieveForum, which shows that only 30% of attempts to implement change are successful.

In outlining the need for clear navigation (often performed by senior managers in organisations) Rose explains that the key skills required of navigation are: maintaining an awareness of the external environment and aligning internal capabilities to support organisational priorities; translating strategic insights into a shared vision in a way that wins hearts and minds; building change readiness and managing building engagement.

In contrast, the pilots in the organisation (often middle managers) need a strong sense of the immediate. “Like successful yacht races, successful pilots bring a sharp eyed focus to the things that matter.” Pilots typically have a closeness to the ground and to day to day reality which navigators don’t have. This means they are often better positioned to identify and address issues which may cause projects to fail. Rose says that just as many sailing mishaps happen within sight of land, many problems with projects become apparent too late on. This may often be because the pilots were not feeding back issues to the navigators. Rose’s work highlights that in high performance organisations, the two roles concentrate on their own critical tasks whilst also working effectively together.

Having covered the roles of navigator and pilot, the majority of the book focuses on the concept of managing at the leading edge. In sailing terms, the leading edge refers to the edge of the sail that contacts with the wind and thus propels the vessel forward. Managers also need to deal with push and pull factors to move their businesses forward and this includes dealing with resistance to change effectively. It is in this area that Rose’s book deviates from some other change management books which tend to be very task focused. Rose extols the virtue of focusing first on readiness amongst key stakeholder groups (not just senior managers!) “Resistance is the most common response to change and how leaders negotiate points along the leading edge help people overcome critical points of resistance” he argues.

Rose identifies five main points of resistance which must be effectively managed for momentum to be maintained and change to succeed. These include:

  • Change blindness – failing to perceive what we see is common in humans and at this stage the need for change has not yet been fully identified
  • Recognition – is where an important or urgent problem which needs to be addressed is identified, perhaps through changes in the business context, customer feedback or low levels of engagement for example
  • Critical Refection – at this stage, the causes and options to address the problem are identified and evaluated through a number of different lenses. At this stage it is also important to identify assumptions, values and beliefs about the problem and options
  • Commitments – this is about developing a plan which all stakeholders have faith in; clarifying a solution or solutions to problems and preparing to implement. (Many change projects which started at this stage have failed as the important earlier steps have been missed out.) Rose emphasises the importance of giving those who will implement the solution the opportunity to influence plans in a way that refers to their own needs and interests
  • Perseverance – According to Rose, researchers estimate that motivation to act endures from one to three months and on rare occasions persists for up to six months. Clearly, this is not long enough for many change programmes so a key role of leaders is to identify and address any dips in commitment. “Slips and lapses in commitment are common and weaken momentum and managing this messy reality is part of the formula for success.” Overcoming challenges and making the right adjustments is key to keeping projects on course and ongoing monitoring of the environment is crucial here.

Rose’ s research highlights what many HR professionals already know – people issues can be a major cause of projects stalling of failing altogether (people factors account for 65% of failures compared to 35% because of technical issues) so effectively leading people through change is key, not least because major change can require both personal and organisational adjustments. To help address this, he suggests carrying out a pre-implementation readiness assessment amongst key stakeholder groups “often it is only when change is imminent that personal and organisational defences reveal their formidable power” warns Rose.

Whilst Rose clearly identifies the important of people in making change successful (or not) at times his approach feels a bit clinical and perhaps does not acknowledge strongly enough the fact that many people can, at times, be excited and passionate about change. Harnessing this energy and stoking a real desire for change (not just simply addressing resistance) is a critical skill for leaders.

With the look and feel of a textbook, Managing at the Leading Edge is a comprehensive guide which leaders may find helpful in navigating their way through change initiatives. The book pulls upon tried and tested tools such as SWOT and the Johari window as well as presenting new models and tools such as The Planning Guide for Managing at the Leading Edge.” The book is also a timely reminder of the importance of all levels of manager working together to navigate their organisations successfully through change in a white water world.

Adele Swan, Senior People Consultant and Executive Coach, Standard Life Investments

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