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Leading through change – where to start?

I do not know of a single organisation at the moment that is not going through change and adapting quickly to the COVID crisis. Much of the change is forced by the circumstances we face. Few organisations three or five year strategic plans had factored in a global pandemic. So it is no wonder that there is pressure on leaders who are leading through change. Dr John Kotter developed an 8 step process for leading change. The first three stages are:

Step 1: Create a sense of urgency

Step 2: Build a guiding coalition

Step 3: Form a strategic vision. 

So where do you start with leading through change?

Don’t start at step 3

When I ask participants on my change programmes what went wrong in their organisations change process, inevitability they point to step number 2 – build a guiding coalition. Please, don’t forget step 2. The reason is very simple, organisations usually have a Head of Strategy, whose role is to develop an organisational strategy. They apply all the strategic tools, analyse the data, hold workshops, consultations and produce a strategy that has broad agreement amongst management. The strategy is then rolled out by the organisation and all the behaviours linked to a change process – shock, denial and resistance – manifest in a greater way then they should.


Because the right change climate has not been created by leadership, this is not the fault of strategy, it’s often the fault of leadership. The organisation and management team tend to focus and start the change in step 3 because in their mind the first need is a plan. Step 1 and 2 are often overlooked or rushed. Step 1 is often overlooked because to use the words of Barry Oshry, “Leaders at the top tend to suck responsibility up”. They think it’s their burden to bear and their role is to protect the organisation from the future crisis ahead, after all, how could simple employees begin to understand the complexity of what leadership has to deal with. Knowledge is power, but it’s only powerful if it’s shared. Keeping that knowledge stuck inside the leader’s head is both useless and frustrating for those trying to understand the bigger picture.

They can handle the truth

In fact, a study by Leadership IQ with  31,664 employees, found that only 15% of employees understand the rationale behind their organisational change. In other words, 85% of organisational employees will likely feel that change is being done to them, rather than with them. It’s time that leaders start to recognise that dialogue and conversation are vital for the development of a change-ready culture. It is important to treat your staff as intelligent adults who if shown the same information are likely to come to the same conclusion as you have and support your change strategy.

Step 1 can be easy – have honest conversations, regularly, often and continuously, and that way you will develop a culture where people are expectant and understand of the need for change when it happens. Remember leadership is in the chat.

Alignment starts at the top

Step 2 building a guiding coalition of support for the change is often harder. The point at which most leaders lose this fight is when they fail to get alignment within their own senior leadership team. You can’t expect the rest of the organisation to support you if the leadership team is not on board. Having difficult conversations, naming the elephant in the room, dialoguing the issues, raising concerns openly and building trust are all part of the process of achieving alignment. Sometimes the team may need a few team coaching sessions to work through the team dynamics to achieve alignment.

Unless the senior leadership team is working effectively as a cohesive unit, getting broader support in the organisation may fail. The rule of thumb is that you should not embark on a change process unless 70% of the organisation supports the change. Being realistic, you will never get 100% support, but you may find it an uphill battle if you only have 30% support.

Change is a human process

Step 3 of forming a strategic vision is always better if it is co-created. That way there is a greater sense of ownership. Change is a human process as well as a technical process. While the hard skill of project and change management can be perfected, change fails usually on the human level. There are a few considerations that would help ease concern around a change:

  • Clarify who is leading the change. There should be lots of clarity about who is responsible for leading the change, the team, the scope and timeframe, objectives, and expected result. The more information you can provide so that employees have clarity of how the change will be implemented the better. When people encounter gaps, they tend to invent stories and explanations to fill the gaps. These stories then add to the organisational Mush as clear leadership guru Gervase Bushe would say, creating a haze of alternative facts that could derail the change process.
  • Discuss how the line will function while implementing change. The discussion that hardly ever happens at the start of a change process is how the line will continue to provide the same level of service while resources are being drawn away to implement the new change programme. Have the conversations early. What are the expectations of individuals’ time? What would the impact be on their work and services if they are drawn away? What can be done to alleviate the impact? What resources will be allocated to support the mitigation? If the change is important enough, dedicate the staff but have a plan to backfill the gaps they create.
  • Explain what structures will be in place for openness, learning and feedback. To help any change process having space for people to share concerns, feedback and ideas. Change is hard and there is a high possibility that people will disengage from the process, especially if they feel they have no voice. The way to keep them involved is to ask for honest feedback, value their openness and contributions. Encourage learning throughout the process. Every change has intended and unintended consequences. The unintended consequences can be mitigated if the change initiatives encourage open feedback.

Finally keep a tab on how people are cooping and seek ways to build up their resilience for the duration. To quote the old African proverb: If you want to go fast go alone. If you want to go far go together.

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