The Defining Characteristics of a True Turnaround

Today’s post was prompted by a recent discussion with a colleague who argued that her organization was “in a constant state of turnaround”. Constant state? Turnaround? Something is not right here, I thought to myself.

Upon some further reflection, it occurred to me – based on the numerous turnarounds in which I’ve participated – that “constant state” and “turnaround” don’t belong in the same sentence. Turnarounds are meant to be interventions, something that indicates change, a different course, a better way of doing things. How can any organization constantly intervene and change? They may try but such a steady state of fluctuation and transition can destabilize an organization and, in the process, lessen the overall effectiveness of any given attempted course change. I would argue that an intervention should be just that, an intervention. This means that it should meet the following three characteristics:

Intentional – This doesn’t just happen as par for the course, as baked into the normal cadence of year to year operations and planning. And you don’t simply add it onto someone’s job or annual goals and say, “there you go, turn that around…” There should be some marked intentionality about the initiative. It must be properly resourced, expectations should be set, potential obstacles considered and remediations planned, and progress tracked and reported. It must be decidedly out of the ordinary in ways that people notice and care about.

Intense – A former boss and mentor of mine talked about making sure that a turnaround felt “like a political campaign” and that there was an undeniable “war room” where decisions are made and problems solved based on well communicated principles of transparency and urgency. It has to feel as though it’s out of the ordinary and, most importantly, it has to be obvious to everyone within earshot that this is important. Really important!

Time Limited – I don’t buy the perpetual turnaround notion. When you meet the above two criteria and have specific goals, then you are either meeting them or you are not. Simple as that. Binary – you succeed or you fail. Now, you may adjust as you go along – life happens – but progress must always be measured against specific targets. If that does not happen, if there are no clear definitions of success, then it’s easy to fall into an “always turning around” mindset and that can be exhausting to staff and managers. Better to set your sights on a target, reach it, and declare victory. Oh, and then celebrate that victory with vigor. By definition, this has be a time limited scenario.

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