In an environment of accelerated progress and challenge, foreshadowing is a key to good communication about organizational change. Leadership should think of foreshadowing as a necessary tool because communicating change too late can make strategic steps look like reactive ones. By giving community members glimpses of what may lie ahead, organizations can:
- Gauge the potential response to changes that may occur.
- Begin to create partnerships necessary to successful implementation of strategic steps.
- Position the change initiative to be transparent. Even the best idea can fail if constituents feel as if it has landed without warning at the very moment when momentum is necessary for implementation.
- Position conversations regarding the change to be inclusive, while defining the boundaries of the conversation. By foreshadowing, the institution can name the goals and create the context for the discussion to follow without disenfranchising important voices in the conversation.
Colleges and schools have traditionally had difficulty foreshadowing successfully because such disclosure forces a dialogue about an initiative before the school leadership knows exactly what it will look like as an end-product. This can feel, and in some cases may be, risky; however, without this step, getting requisite support for change may be impossible and thus represent a far greater risk.
By foreshadowing and by seeking input, leadership invites a wide range of constituents to the table, while making it clear that standing still and allowing the status quo to hold is off the table.
Thus, foreshadowing is central in getting the wheels of progress to turn. At times, however, cultures need the opposite of foreshadowing–instead of foreshadowing, we need action that is out in front of conversation and certainly any sort of consensus. There are moments when a leadership needs to get out first and ask for others to catch back up later. (I have written about this before in a post called, “Stretching the Rubber Band in a Progress Culture”). Particularly when there is an opportunity to illustrate a strategic vision and take an opportunity that would disappear if there is too much delay, leadership must be willing to move ahead decisively. It is vital here to ensure that key decision-makers are dialed in—the Executive Committee of the Board and the Administrative team, for instance.
If leadership waits for everyone to be ready for each individual move and foreshadows each small step, the organization will not go far enough fast enough to stay ahead of the entropy, which is bound to be clicking at its heels. It will also subtly send the message that it is too tentative and lacks the assertiveness to navigate the challenges of implementing vision. Sometimes leadership has to go ahead and make a move in order to prove to the culture that it is ready for it and on order to illustrate a strategic objective that has already been chosen by the organization.
Interestingly, this approach is not as far from the foreshadowing model as it might first appear. Indeed they are both tools to the same end—strategic progress. Taking some steps forward before creating broad-based support is from one angle its own kind of foreshadowing of a culture that will be lighter and more fleet of foot. It also announces through real action that there is the institutional resolve requisite for the occasion. Taking action first on some of these small-scale decisions creates an expectation of its own borne of the fact that the organization has changed the way it goes about creating strategic progress. Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, such steps can illustrate through action the strategic vision of the organization. In this way, an individual action, relatively small in the context of the larger strategy, can itself serve as a way to foreshadow future and likely larger steps going forward.
Getting out ahead in this way is not built to be a lasting strategy–it is tailor made for the period of time when the scale of change requires speed and decisiveness focused on a nuanced and thorough understanding of the strategic direction. I have often used metaphors from the beach to help me sort out my thinking, and there is one that may illustrate my point. Imagine that the organization is on a boat faced with trying to go from the beach to the spot beyond the breaking surf. We would not ponder each individual step that propels us forward because the only option other than moving forward is moving backward–and we cannot move backward if we ever hope to get beyond the waves.
Once we get beyond the surf, we can engage in lengthy reflection on our path as we strive to refine our course toward our strategic vision. In fact, staying with the initial strategy of preemptive moves at that point would be misguided; however, until we get by that last set of big waves, we must do everything we can to preserve momentum forward, or we may find ourselves roughed up and thrown back on the beach.