Leading change – is it art or science?


December 11th, 2013

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In the years prior to joining Roffey Park I worked on a number of large, IT led change projects. Ever since, I have had a curiosity around how organisations lead – or don’t – and deliver – or often do not – change. And even when they do, how sustainable said change is. Many of those experiences came flooding back to me recently in the light of two different conversations. The first was with an HR professional whose organisation had recently gone through a significant re-structuring. He was struck by the fact that the one part of the organisation to be uniquely unaffected and impacted by change was the Senior Management Team, to the extent that one board member gleefully shared he still had a job when those around him were still at risk of losing theirs. The impact on staff motivation was not positive.

This contrasted with a breakfast I had with a former Vice President at a Fortune 500 globally recognized company. I asked her what she considered the three most important factors when leading and delivering change.

“You can never do enough communicating”

1. Communicate – and specifically:

  • Be truthful – e.g. be clear with staff around whether you as a leader are or are not going to be affected by change. If you are, then you are signalling that you are part of ‘this’. If not, be honest that you are safe, and the reasons why.
  • Talk personally.
  • Be timely.

“Start at the top”

2. Wherever possible, start with the change at the top. This reduces the power of the ‘Them & Us’ pattern.

“If you are a leader who has made decisions, own them.

3. Own your choices. You either need to have gone or be going through the same change or be an active part of what is happening to others.

Leadership challenges around change

Leading change can be challenging, overwhelming & confusing...

Leading change can be challenging, overwhelming & confusing…

The Management Agenda 2014 is due to be published shortly by Roffey Park, and a couple of early glimpses at the data help illuminate the above further.

  • ‘Managing change’ was the most commonly rated leadership challenge amongst our sample, with 38% of managers reporting this as one of their top three challenges.
  • Managing ‘organisational politics’ was rated as one of the top 3 challenges by 21% of managers.

I would suggest this sharpens the value of the suggestions above.  (Details of the Management Agenda 2013 can be found here. And the new report will also be available via that link when available.)

Facing the challenges

Leading and delivering change requires a great deal from those who are tasked with it. And it can be a challenge to remain present and available, effective and clear, and above all navigate the pitfalls that can readily occur. It can be a profoundly lonely experience, bruising even. It can also be exhilarating and deliver sustainable change, and the art to this is learning how to adapt strategic change to its operational context whilst remaining human.