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Helping Stuck Organizations Get Unstuck: Interview with Pete Kelly

Posted by Apartment Life on May 16, 2024 8:30:00 AM
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The following interview with Pete Kelly, Apartment Life CEO, was pulled from Episode 207 of the Apartment Life Leadership Podcast and was edited for length and clarity.


Let’s start with what it means to be “stuck.” Can you share with us a couple of ways that you see organizations get stuck? 

The first way would be that organizations fail to see reality for what it is. They might be unable to see what's not working, or they're not able to diagnose why it's not working, or they fail to see the broader trends of what's coming on the horizon. A great example of that would be Blockbuster and Netflix. My understanding is that back in 2000, Blockbuster had the opportunity to buy Netflix for 50 million dollars.

And the story goes that they laughed them out of the room. Now. I wasn't in the room – I don't know what happened, but they missed a golden opportunity because Netflix is now worth like 3,000 times that price. Blockbuster ended up declining and going out of business, and Netflix is a juggernaut in the entertainment industry today.

I think one of the reasons that the executives probably missed it is that they had a hard time facing reality and seeing it for what it was, which is pretty common in organizations. Maybe you're blinded by your successes, and so you can't see the failures, or you see the failures, but you don't understand fundamentally why you're failing, and you misdiagnose what's going on.

Another reason organizations get stuck is that the people trying to implement change want to figure everything out before pulling the trigger. One of my favorite stories is about a university that didn't pour the cement for the sidewalks until after the first year of classes, because they wanted to see where the students actually walked and rode their bikes to class. Based on where the grass was kind of worn down from students walking back and forth, that's where they put the sidewalks in.

It's a great analogy for developing systems and processes. Sometimes, you don't know what you need until you've got enough people or widgets or clients through the process. And then you go, okay, now we know what we need.

I think the third reason organizations get stuck is that sometimes they either have too many people trying to solve the problem or not the right people. Both of those are issues. When you have too many cooks in the kitchen, and they all have very divergent opinions, it creates this fog of ambiguity. Before you know it, you're talking not about the central problem, but all these other things that are ancillary to what the core thing is.

What does an organization need to do once they realize they're stuck? And what are the steps that they need to take to get back on track?

staff apt life

It's a gift when an organization knows it's stuck because many organizations are stuck, but they don't realize it. When you realize you're stuck and everybody realizes you're stuck, there is an opportunity for change because everyone's going to cooperate.

In terms of steps of getting unstuck, there's a great book written by John Cotter, Leading Change, where he gives eight steps for organizations to get unstuck. I won’t mention all eight, but I’ll give you some. 

First, you need to establish a sense of urgency. You need to make sure that everyone is aware you’re stuck and how big a deal that is. Second, you need to get the right coalition in place. And again, it's getting the right people in the room with all of those right characteristics: the vision, the optimism, the competency, the tenacity, and the ability to deal with ambiguity. 

Then, you need some early wins for the organization. If you're going to try something new, nothing generates momentum like a successful pilot. Because then people go, okay, this is no longer theory. This is working, and customers are signing up for the service, and it's gaining momentum.

The hardest part is anchoring change in the organization. This is the toughest to do. You have to consistently go back to casting vision to the organization and gaining alignment, making sure the systems support this new product or this new service. However, a lot of it involves changing the mindsets of the individual, and that takes time. 

What's some advice that you'd give to an individual who's gotten stuck?

Some of the same principles for organizations also apply to people. You need the ability to see reality – you've got to be able to see where you’re stuck and be able to face that without condemning yourself or shaming yourself. You need to be able to say my marriage is not where I want it to be, my health is not where I want it to be, or my career is not where I want it to be.

And then secondly, you’ve got to resist the urge to figure everything out before you take action, because that will lead to what they call paralysis of analysis. You need to be able to just take the next step. 

Next, I'd say cultivating the right mindset: the vision, the optimism, developing the competencies you need, maintaining the tenacity, and honestly being able to deal with ambiguity. If you want to change careers, for example, that's going to lead to a period of insane ambiguity, but you need to face it. Otherwise, in five years, you'll be in exactly the same place you are today. It's all the same principles for individuals. 

That’s great advice. Do you have any other wisdom to share to help take those first steps toward getting unstuck?

I'll leave with this, which is three Ps to consider when your organization is stuck: the people, the processes, and the product. If your organization's stuck, you might want to ask: Do I have the right people?  Do I have the right processes in our hiring or training? And then, ultimately, you want to look at the product.

I love the story of the CEO of a dog food company. This CEO was upset with his executive leadership team because sales were not progressing, even though they’d spent all this money on marketing and getting the product out. Sales were flat, and he was just like, what are we going to do to turn things around? Finally one of the executives in the room just sheepishly said, “Dogs don't like it.” Sometimes, you have to look at the product. Sometimes, things are stuck because the product's just not a good fit for the client or your audience. 


For more interviews with leaders in the multifamily industry, you can follow along at apartmentlife.org/podcast. Follow @aptlife for updates on new episodes and upcoming content! If you enjoy listening, leave us a review on Apple or Spotify. We can't wait to hear from you and hope this podcast serves as a helpful resource.

Topics: multifamily housing, podcast, apartment life, leadership

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