This is the tenth in a series of blogs in which we will look at some of the common issues faced by modern leaders and how they can be addressed. Today, we will look at an increasingly common requirement for leaders: leading change.
'Change is the only constant!', as the saying goes. It is certainly true that agility is an important competence for almost all businesses to possess if they are to be successful. However, it is not really new: just think of the momentous changes during the Enlightenment, the Age of Exploration and the Industrial Revolution. That said, the rate of change is accelerating and the speed at which organisations must move has thus increased markedly.
Given the inevitability of change and the vast sums that have been poured into understanding the process better, it is perhaps surprising that so many major change initiatives still fail to deliver the anticipated benefits. Here are some figures which back up this claim:
HBR - 'about 70% of all change initiatives fail' 
Forbes/Towers Watson - '25% of change management initiatives are successful over the longer term' 
McKinsey and Company - '70% of change programs fail to achieve their goals' 
Pretty depressing figures!
The good news is that you can take steps that will massively increase your chances of not just getting change done, but of more fully realising the desired benefits over the long term and of developing an 'agile change mindset' across your organisation.
Kotter's 8-Step Change Process
John Kotter is one of the world's leading experts on change management. His book, 'Leading Change', has been one of the go-to resources I have used to help leaders plan and implement their change programmes in different sectors. In it, he highlights 8 steps that help ensure a cohesive and effective change management process :
1. Create a sense of urgency
You may be surprised to learn that Kotter identifies this first step as the most common area for failure (page 4 of his book if you are interested!).
Leaders must clearly communicate the need for change and inspire a sense of urgency among employees. Without a compelling reason to change, people tend to resist it. Whilst effective leaders thrive on change, too many underestimate how change-resistant people can be and they spend too little time getting buy-in at the outset (see the 'What the Best Leaders do Differently' article on LinkedIn for more information: (24) What the Best Leaders do Differently | LinkedIn).
2. Create a powerful coalition
Build a strong team of influential individuals who can drive the change effort forward. This coalition must have the necessary expertise, authority, cross-functional information and credibility to provide the necessary drive. Other Aspire MCL blogs contain lots of tips on how to create and sustain high-performance teams - get in touch if you would like to know more (the link is below) .
3. Create a compelling vision for change
The vision outlines the desired future state and helps align employees, motivates them to embrace the change, and provides a roadmap for action.
Tip: Avoid using 'management speak'! That is usually a turn-off: rather, use language that will resonate with your key stakeholders.
Incidentally, having a compelling vision will help people to engage. It is increasingly true that people, especially the generation now reaching the manager/senior manager levels, want a job where they feel like their work matters. At a time when recruitment and retention are key concerns, it is important to connect with people where they are (and not just where you think they should be).
4. Communicate the vision
And not just once! Have you e been in an organisation where a major strategic change initiative has been launched amidst much fanfare, possibly even a formal launch event, but the effort fizzled out after a few weeks or months?
A repetitive but essential part of the leader's role is to be the CRO - the Chief Reminding Officer! People are so swamped with communications, which too frequently contain conflicting information, that they have learnt to wait until it becomes clear that the message really is important and consistent, i.e., that the leaders are really serious about this issue and mean to act accordingly. Reinforcing the message at every opportunity and in different formats and settings is a key requirement for getting people to move on an issue.
5. Empower others to act
Delegation is an essential skill, but more is involved here. This step also includes the intentional removal of obstacles to progress, e.g. how many approval steps are really necessary before direct reports can act? It also involves providing coaching, mentoring and training if new skill sets are required, boosting collaboration (few big changes affect only one unit) and ensuring adequate resources are committed.
6. Generate short-term wins
Change can mean hard and extended work with increased levels of conflict. Facilitating small but meaningful victories along the way both encourages proponents and helps to convince opponents to reconsider. They also show the determination of the leadership to continue.
7. Consolidate and build on gains
Use the credibility gained from early wins to drive further change. Reinforce the new behaviours, systems, and processes and ensure they are integrated into the organization's culture.
8. Anchor the changes in the corporate culture
Another common error is to declare victory too soon. The temptation at this step is for battle-weary proponents to look to the achievements as the final victory so they can finally stop fighting, and for resistors to point to the new results as evidence that the initiative is now done and it is time to focus on something else.
However, if the changes are not properly embedded in culture and processes, such that they are the way things are naturally done, a time of stress or opportunity will likely mean that old habits will resurface.
In Kotter's book, he references an aeronautical design company that made successful changes over a period of 5 years. After that time, a new CEO came in and the company reverted to its previous practices. Within 2 short years, the gains were lost (pages 153-155)!
Make every effort to constantly embed the changes into the organization's culture until they become the new way of doing things. This step ensures that the changes become sustainable and are not abandoned once the initial excitement subsides.
Tip: Ensure recruitment and promotion criteria match the desired competencies, not just the currently required ones.
Other Keys to Success
Effective leadership -
The reality is that most people are resistant to big changes and leaders are necessary to motivate and empower them to deliver, especially in the face of inevitable setbacks. A clear vision, well communicated by an empowered and empowering leader is an excellent foundation on which to build.
Tip: Involving people at all stages of the initiative will create a deeper sense of ownership and may surface additional issues and opportunities.
Good planning and governance -
Most change initiatives are complex and cross-functional. Additionally, they are not happening in a vacuum and adjustments are likely to be required. Empowering other levels to act in response to new demands can speed up decision-making and boost engagement. However, there must be clear escalation boundaries supported by an effective reporting process.
A good plan with specific gateways ('go', 'no-go' decision points) will help keep things on track (or show if the plan should be changed or cancelled).
Ensure that the change initiative remains aligned with the wider organisational goals and priorities (mission, vision, values and strategic objectives). The more it can be shown to be in harmony with the organisation's planned direction, the more support it will enjoy and the more successful it is likely to be.
This is mentioned above but it is worthy of further emphasis. In addition to regular reminders of the need for change, short-term wins, etc., it is important to be (appropriately!) open and honest.
Attempts to put a false positive spin on problems or setbacks will result in lost credibility and a likely increase in resistance (or at least passive non-compliance) when the truth emerges.
A good way to handle sharing negative news is to keep it short and simple and to include in the messaging what is working and what will be done to rectify the setback.
Involve different people at different stages of the process -
Whilst a core team may have to maintain involvement for the whole change cycle, pulling in different people to support at different stages will both keep the headcount down and ensure that those people are being maximally employed.
Whilst all jobs contain elements that we may find undesirable, focussing people's work on tasks they enjoy and are good at, where possible, will increase the chance of success and boost engagement. Tools such as Belbin Team Roles (Tools | Aspire Management Consultancy Ltd | England (aspiremcl.co.uk)) and The 6 types of Working Genius can help articulate team members' strengths and preferred working roles.
Learn from mistakes (and share the knowledge!) -
There are few change initiatives that will be so radical at heart that others have not addressed similar challenges or opportunities. Learning from what they got right and wrong could save a lot of time and help avoid some of the pitfalls.
There are numerous sources of information that could help here including trade journals and shows, personal networks, professional consultants, etc.
A source of information that is too often overlooked is one's own organisation. A 'wash-up' meeting after the completion of major projects should highlight key lessons and ensure they are available for other internal stakeholders to learn from. To be useful, though, the reports need to be honest.
Leading successful change initiatives in business is a complex undertaking, but with the right leadership competencies and a structured approach like Kotter's 8-step change process, leaders can navigate the challenges far more effectively. By learning from real-world case studies, avoiding common mistakes, and embracing the wisdom of successful leaders, organizations can significantly increase the likelihood of achieving meaningful and sustainable change.
If you would like to learn how to realise your leadership potential, or if you want to know how Aspire MCL can help your business thrive by developing high-performance boards/teams and organisational health, call or email today for a no-obligation consultation.
Question: what would you add to the above? Please add any suggestions or observations that could help others in the comments box. Thank you. As noted, this is the tenth blog in a series addressing leadership issues. If there is a topic you would like Aspire to cover in subsequent releases, or if you would like a no-obligation consultation to discuss any of Aspire MCL's services, please comment or email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Aspire MCL will not spam you!
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 Kotter, J.P., Leading Change, HBR Press, Boston, Massachusetts, 2012