Steering the Ship of Change: Navigational Principles for Transformative Leadership


Navigating the world of a fast-growing company is challenging: priorities can be competing, prioritization becomes daunting and if decision-making slows down, collective velocity slows down. Growth environments naturally come with complexity when undergoing an organizational transformation.

Over the last five years, I have seen SumUp fourfold as an organization, from 800 to roughly 3500 people. The “Engineering, Product & Design” sub-organization I was lucky enough to accompany went through an even larger growth journey. I helped built teams along the way and eventually started building them myself, together with the many talented people around me.

I embraced change once it became a constant and started paying attention to the process of change itself. From this, I identified three guiding principles that helped me navigate my environment.

Achieving Contextual Clarity

When saying it out loud, it almost seems too obvious: In every situation, consider context first. Yet, I found that the majority of people tend to jump to a reaction first, including myself.

You can usually derive context by asking yourself a simple question: “Why is this happening at this point in time?”

This unveils variables affecting particular situations and the motivations of the people involved. By being aware of both, you gain the ability to make more informed decisions. And make them faster.

You’ll need to find a balance between silent self-reflection on the “Why” and asking out loud. People don’t want to be questioned constantly, but the occasional probing question is needed.

This question can express itself differently, depending on the subject. You might ask “Why is person X doing this/asking for this right now?” if you can associate the event with a specific person. More so, it helps to occasionally make yourself the subject: “Why am I doing this?”

After doing this for a while, you will find that your fine-tuned sense of situational awareness becomes a habit that feels like a superpower in many situations:

  • You communicate your intention more clearly, avoiding unnecessary clarification.
  • You gain a more natural understanding of other people’s points of view.
  • You get better at reaching your goal, simply because you don’t lose sight of it.

Letting Go: The Catalyst for Progress

Non-trivial subjects usually come with baggage from the past. Identify that baggage and make sure it’s not too heavy for you to walk with (or sprint, if you need to).

It’s important to consider, respect, and understand the context that led to past decisions informing the present, but equally important to consider if that same context applies at this very moment.

The easiest choice is to keep things the way they are. You need to understand the risks that come with doing this. Some of those things will eventually slow you down, maybe even so much that you can’t walk anymore.

On the contrary, not everything can be changed all the time. Choose consciously and carefully…

  • …which baggage to keep.
  • …which baggage to let go of.
  • …when to do this and at what pace (you might be able to drop baggage in parts).

A Focused Strategy: What to Skip

Failures can often be traced back to doing too many things at once, to not doing the right things, or to doing things not the right way. These are second and third-order effects of lacking a plan or strategy (also keep in mind: A Plan Is Not a Strategy).

“The Essence of Strategy is Choosing What Not to Do” is a quote from Michael Porter, an American academic known for his theories on economics and business strategy. Choosing not to do something is usually the harder choice (to make), but is a necessary one.

When you’re eager to accomplish a lot, a natural reaction is to take on many topics. This could be either you putting in the work yourself, or hiring people to do everything. Ambition alone is not a strategy, though.

Choosing what not to do forces you to distill a strategy by identifying what is truly necessary to get where you want to go. You need to prioritize progress over perfection in order to accomplish meaningful objectives. Perfect can be the enemy of Done — don’t let it. Progress leads to tangible outcomes, based on which you can iterate and refine as needed.

About the Author

Florian Schliep is a software engineer & entrepreneur based in Berlin, Germany. He is available for consulting in mobile engineering strategy, hiring and due diligence.

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