Deborah RowlandGlobally sought after adviser and coach to top leaders navigating large scale change

Thinking On Change

Change is extraordinarily difficult to do as all (human) systems are wired for survival, which tends to mean repeating the coping strategies of the past. It is also extraordinarily complex to do, as organisations are comprised of many interlocking variables and myriads of human transactions – which operate both in the arena of the “legitimate”, or formal system, and the darker yet more powerful arena of the “shadow”, or informal system, where emotions are felt, work really gets done, and loyalties acted out.

So, what’s to be done? How can leaders increase their chances of pulling off big change successfully? Research I have led and decades of practical experience point to three things.

1. Understanding the pathway of change

While change is not linear, there are certain phases that all change passes through. And it is helpful to know at any time what phase you are in, and where you need to head to next. In essence, all fundamental change starts with increasing self-awareness and getting to the source of what creates today’s results, setting this alongside what the external world is calling for. There then needs to be a phase of critically choosing what needs to be adjusted, focusing on the fewest items that will most enable movement (too often change ends up with lots of “busy-ness” and increased activity, rather than shifting the underlying system that produces today’s outcomes). Once the agenda is framed, then getting going and implementing bold moves and experiments in the organization to accelerate change – choosing where you do this is fateful. Once new ways of thinking and acting are getting greater critical mass, there then needs to be a sustaining phase to ensure that the whole system is able to perform differently and “continue with its own changing”. Throughout all of this, learning and feedback loops are critical to monitor progress and make any needed adjustments. Leaders can easily “declare victory too soon”.

2. Selecting and implementing an appropriate change approach

There are many ways to implement change (e.g. top down, bottom up, innovation incubators). The most important principle here is that your change approach models your desired outcome. For example – if you are creating a leaner less hierarchical organization, then don’t set up a very complex and heavily governanced organization design process. If you are creating a more commercial enterprise, then operate a very result led and outcome focused change agenda. If you are trying to become more externally oriented, then bring in the voice of the external stakeholders. My research has also shown that change approaches that assume that change is complex, and not straightforward and linear, are more likely to succeed. Too often however change is launched in a very top down way with very simplistic programmes that fail to both anticipate and manage the human dynamics involved, and build new learning capacities in the organization. This can be as simple as setting up new informal & lateral networks across the organization. Whatever approach is used, I have never seen change succeed when the senior leadership team don’t also look at themselves and what they need to enact, and shift, in order to take their organization to a different place (“leaders get the organization they deserve”).

3. Mastering the leadership capacities required

Finally, I have found that the single most important variable that determines whether or not change succeeds, is about what leaders do, and as importantly, how they “are”. Lets start with how they are: leaders who are mindful, who continually build their self-awareness, and act with the organisation’s (not the ego’s) goals in mind, are far more likely to have the capacity and authenticity to implement big change (in which all kinds of human dynamics and organizational projections get played out, tripping leaders up). Even aspects such as physical fitness and energy levels have a bearing here. When a leader is “in a bad mood”, the whole organization feels it (“emotions are contagious”). Secondly, a leader might be in a good place personally, but still not use the essential practices required to lead big change. My research identified four: the ability to create shared purpose and meaning for the change; the ability to fiercely and truthly name “what is” and what needs changing – especially mindsets and behaviours; an ability to process and channel the inevitable fear and anxiety that comes with change; and finally the deftness of touch to be totally present at any one moment and make change happen “in the here and now” moment of every meeting, conversation etc. Leaders who master all four of these practices are able to bring about change far more effortlessly than those who do not.

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