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Pressure to Change versus Staff Appetite for Change

Douglas Duncan, CIO, Columbia Insurance Group
Douglas Duncan, CIO, Columbia Insurance Group

Douglas Duncan, CIO, Columbia Insurance Group

In my previous article, I introduced my leadership framework for building elite teams and provided a practical example of the newness of the leader versus organizational buy-in. My approach to developing leadership insights is to compare two highly interactive dynamics many of us face in leading teams, and explore the implications of the four possible intersections.

Team building tactics may fail without considering the environment

First, a quick recap of the framework. CIOs all rely on their teams for success, and almost all want and need their teams to be more effective. Tactically, a CIO can hire new talent, use consulting, conduct training, increase awards and more to improve performance. However, success is often limited and a more strategic approach is required to understand the work environment and create the right conditions for improvement.

What is unique about your situation? Previously we considered the interactions between the CIO’s newness to the role and the organizational resistance to change. Keep in mind that we can only control the framework we use, not the actual facts on the ground for our work environment.

Pressure Cooker or Slow Bake?

I have experienced my share of high pressure environments where results need to be fast and excuses are unwelcome. It was all about the results, and if things got a bit messy, success became the best deodorant. Maybe this is your typical day, and if so, you have my sympathy. Or perhaps your work culture is lower pressure, and as long as it gets done right, it is a job well done. I have been there too, and it can also be frustrating! In any work environment, this also can change over time depending on external business cycles and internal events.

 Success is often limited and a more strategic approach is required to understand the work environment and create the right conditions for improvement 

What happens when we contrast this “Pressure to Change” spectrum against the “Staff Appetite for Change”? Is the team gung-ho and ready to tackle anything new, or are they highly resistant, taking a NIMBY (not in my back yard) attitude?

The quadrants of this Use Case show the four key interactions and help determine the best strategy given the environment.

Small Wins

You are facing an uphill battle where a high pressure environment meets a team with a weak appetite for change. Uphill, but not impossible. Do two things…identify the influencers within the team, and seek small wins on which to build. As positive changes happen, even the smallest, you should reward the behavior. If you have persistent detractors, remove them from the equation. Focus on the influencers who do more than pay lip service to your plans. Once you develop momentum, you can turn your energies to larger impact activities knowing your team now has a track record of success.

Charge Ahead

High pressure for success combined with a strong team appetite to change sounds like a dream formula for success. And it is! But you need take care – if the outcomes of your initial activities are not immediately perceived as positive and solving important problems, your supporters could become disenchanted. Your team is eager to act, the organizational culture says they must act, therefore the results need be pretty spectacular. Make sure you go for the gold ring.


Oh dear! How did this happen? You have an eager team, ready to take on any challenge, but the culture is holding you back. At the very least, quick and decisive action by your team might be perceived by others as rash and ill thought out. If you slow things down the results can be unfocused and create dissatisfaction from your top talent. Your best option is to focus on areas where you have more control. Leverage your team’s skills and focus on activities where you have a higher level of control and influence. In due time, turn your team onto the work with a greater impact on others, who will assume you were focusing on them all along.


The double negative of a weak team appetite for change and a slow moving organizational culture can be the recipe for stagnation. You will find it challenging to be the only cheerleader for what needs to be done. Make this a competition, and help your team be elite by delegating and empowering your key people. While this is almost always a good idea in any event, in this scenario it is particularly helpful. Define clear incentives for their success, and allow them the means to reward their people, and you will create a culture that rewards change and discourages people from playing it safe.

Customize the framework to your specific needs

Modify the examples I have given, or create other use cases that will help you work your way through challenging barriers your team faces. Maybe you will over-simplify a complex situation, but in most cases creating and utilizing this sort of framework will bring clarity and a way forward.

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