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Mark Bouch

Leading Change

Managing Director

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Leadership: why effective change management requires a new leadership structure


Most people say they love to change but hate doing so. In order to facilitate effective change, leadership teams need to step up and be the change they want to see.

Change is constant in business life. No longer can people or organisations prepare for change, make a special effort then return to previous norms. Change overlays everything we do and is an integral part of business life.

When people struggle to balance the needs of change with their ‘day job’, their discomfort levels increase and their willingness to adopt change decreases.

Change or evolution will leave you behind

In today’s business environment change truly is a constant. It’s a cliché but also a fact.

Most of us have little control over change, but the need for organisations and people to continually adapt and adopt change will continue, so we all need to start accelerating the pace at which we accept change.

Organisational leaders need to get smarter at making change adoption an integral part of their lives, so they waste less time and energy on it. If it’s not already, change will be your day job.

What drives successful change?

McKinsey’s research on failed change projects indicates 40-60% of change projects realise their anticipated results.

They identified a direct correlation between the level of project success and a factor called ‘change adoption’.

Comfort and change have always had a challenging co-existence, and the future will bring increasing demands. 

Effective change is the product of the quality of a change solution and the extent to which it is successfully adopted (expressed as a formula: Q x A = E).

Effectiveness or the intended business result cannot be achieved by quality of the change solution alone - adoption is truly a change multiplier. This is where leaders play a decisive role.

Change leadership: the difference that makes a difference

In today’s world, leaders are under pressure. Part of the reason for this is the relentless pace of change.

In addition, organisational leadership and management practices evolve slowly, with some still reflecting the dawn of the 20th century (and some truly are dinosaurs by today's standards!).

It’s clear that we need a major rethink of the change leadership operating system to ensure it’s fit for purpose to address the challenges we face.

There are a few points that need to be addressed as part of this:

  1. Leaders must design change solutions for an uncertain world
    We can see a clear trend towards more agile organisations able to set clear intent for change (a picture of what success looks like) but adapt their approach or destination should the situation demand it.
  2. We must increase the focus on change leadership
    Whilst change management emerged to make sense of the complexity of organisational change, the term itself downplays the role for change leadership: the discipline combining change execution, people and cultural aspects of change.
  3. Change leadership must not be left to change teams
    It is everyone’s responsibility. Change leaders play a pivotal role in helping organisations and people make effective transitions through stages of change. In the future the ‘journey’ will be continuous with no defined beginning or end. We had better get used to it.

What should change leaders do differently?

Effective change leaders will focus on the rational, emotional and practical aspects of change to ensure people are ready to make the effort, feel willing to participate and are equipped with the capability (tools and behaviours) to contribute effectively.

Comfort and change have always had a challenging co-existence, and the future will bring increasing demands. To be effective leaders need to change the way they think.

You can’t predict the future accurately. Data can create misplaced confidence about future events and any assumptions you make do not become fact just because you based your planning on them.

Change will happen, with or without you. As an effective change leader, you can take tangible, practical actions to increase change adoption.

Leaders will need to provide clear direction, a compass heading, but expressed as a high-level view of what success looks like (we refer to that as intent). As a change leader only make detailed plans for things you can control. Think about outcomes.

Your key role is to align delivery teams to intent. You need to be able to quickly form and re-form teams with a flexible and ever-changing combination of resources and the authority necessary to focus on delivery.

Leaders need to develop greater confidence to distribute change leadership widely, and then get out of the way.

When things are uncertain, the leader response must be ‘comfortable being uncomfortable’. Even if you think you know all the answers, attempting top-down control of change is likely to make things worse.

Adaptive leadership is a core change competency. In practice it requires the insight to know when things aren’t working and the flexibility to adapt to changes in the external environment.

It’s fair to say that most other leadership fundamentals won’t change, so as Stephen Covey might have advised, it’s time to ‘sharpen the leadership saw’!

Next steps

Great change execution makes a difference. Effective change leadership makes a critical difference.

Change will happen, with or without you. As an effective change leader, you can take tangible, practical actions to increase change adoption.

By doing so you will shorten the lifecycle of change and get people through the process with minimal friction.

If you need to be convinced that traditional organisations and leadership practices are on borrowed time, or you’re aiming to upgrade your capability as a change leader, get familiar with ‘next generation’ organisations.

Recommended reading includes McKinsey’s January 2018 paper on The Five Trademarks of Agile Organisations. Also, look at Fredric Laloux’s Reinventing Organisations - I prefer the 2016 illustrated version, which is more accessible.

Finally, think about your leadership capability in the context of future organisations:

  • Which of your current skill sets will remain relevant?
  • What leadership practices will you need to leave behind or adapt?
  • How comfortable do you need to be with being uncomfortable?
  • Who can help you with this?

Interested in learning more about this topic? Read Why change programmes fail in their tracks.

Author Profile Picture
Mark Bouch

Managing Director

Read more from Mark Bouch

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