Leading Change; we’re not getting it right

Simon Marshall

Leading Change; we’re not getting it right

We hope our leaders enrol us into inspiring futures, and engage us in the hard work required to bring this into reality, even when at first it might seem impossible to do so. We also expect leaders to walk the talk and to demonstrate what living from that future looks like in the face of everyday challenges. Therefore, leading change is at the very core of what it means to be a leader.

However, despite much recent focus on leadership development, and many, many publications that guide us on ‘managing change’ we don’t actually seem to be making much progress in our ability to deliver the changes we intend. Many studies over the last couple of decades agree that 70% of all change initiatives fail (1). In addition, we undermine the key resource we have for making change work: people. Nearly 65% of all US employees don’t feel engaged (2) in the work they do and this figure hasn’t significantly moved for decades. The mere mention of the word ‘change’ often starts eyes rolling… as stories are remembered of past experiences where there was a massive amount of activity, much sacrifice and many things changing, but in the end, things didn’t get much better.

After reviewing the wealth of research and publications on how to effect successful change, then reflecting on our experience of running change programmes over the last 25 years, we have simplified the lessons learned into three fundamental categories:

1) Create a powerful and enabling Context – easy to say or read, but it is rare to find this powerfully in place. Kotter refers to this in part as creating a sense of urgency. This is indeed necessary, but there is an underlying factor that needs to be present to ensure the change is fully owned by the people it will affect: a deep connection to the higher purpose of the organisation. The higher purpose, cause of belief, the reason the organisation exists, is what Simon Sinek (3) describes as the organisation’s ‘Why’. We know it is present when everyone feels connected powerfully and viscerally, finding themselves doing their life’s work through their organisation. This very personal and human connection to the very things that are most important to us (which are always rooted in service of others) ensures we have a guiding star and an enduring purpose from which to create the future. In a 2015 survey published by E&Y in HBR (4), of 474 global executives interviewed, 84% believe that an organisation that has a shared purpose will be more successful in transformation efforts.

2) Leadership, from Inspiration to Implementation – the leader’s role is to create a vision of the future and to describe it in such a way that she/he enrols others in bringing it into reality. Again Kotter describes this as creating a guiding coalition – the critical point here is to enrol people in creating their future: great leaders know the importance of people being involved in shaping their solutions rather than merely implementing someone else’s, however technically sound they may be. The leader’s job (and leaders are needed at all levels of the business), is to impel people into action, not to merely compel If people are impelled into action, i.e. they choose to get into action to both serve themselves and the organisation, the change will then be much more likely to endure and will require far less follow up and coercive management. And we must not forget that the leaders’ role is to lead people and teams through this process from start to finish – from inspiration to all the way through to the end of implementation.

3) An Engaging Change process – the experience of the change process, i.e. how people feel about it, and indeed the difference it makes to them personally, is as significant as the technical aspects of the journey. Peter Drucker famously quoted that ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’, which helps us to understand that we should spend as much time thinking about the experience of the change journey as the technical steps/solution along the way. Often this will require the senior team to learn new ways to communicate and engage their people. Leading a business that is both delivering upon its day to day commitments and transforming itself, can often feel like playing three dimensional chess – it is complicated and requires complete commitment to mastering the game, humility, learning, and engaging others in solving the various challenges that get surfaced.

The good news is that there are organisations that have applied this thinking in practice and have developed a culture and resilience that enables them to tackle whatever challenges they come across. For further ways to learn how to create these organisations we have created an approach called Why-Based Organisational Development as a methodology, expertise and tool kit, to support organisations to take the next leap in their development. It is shaped by the above learnings and is designed to enable leaders to master change, mitigating the typical reasons why change fails and evoking choice and ownership throughout the organisation, assuring both breakthrough and enduring results.


(1) 70% of change programmes fail to meet their objectives was first stated in Kotter’s HBR article of 1995 and has been repeated in many studies since then e.g. McKinsey article of September 2013. Interestingly, according to the McKinsey survey, 72% of the reasons why change failed were reported as either down to management attention (33%) or employee resistance (39%)

(2) See the annual Gallup survey (via Dr Jim Harter) results below. Gallup Employee Engagement Survey

Gallup Employee Engagement Survey

(3) Simon Sinek www.startwithwhy.com

(4) E&Y survey The Business Case for Purpose

Simon is the author of Why-Based Organisational Development and WhyNot’s Leadership Curriculum, and has extensive experience in leadership development, cultural and organisational change and executive coaching.

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