How Do You Lead Change? It’s All In The Definition

Because the world is changing fast, leading change is perhaps the critical leadership capability.

Leading change requires creating experiences for people that reveal new possibilities, while uniting them to drive strategies that harness the resources to win in the marketplace. It requires optimizing the culture of an organization while making investments to drive business growth – simultaneously.

This we hold to be true.

Yet decades of research into change leadership has made one thing quite clear: those who lead change in the wrong way experience swift and often painful consequences.

The story gets a little worse, and I provide more data below.

A Definition Of Change Leadership

Over the past 20 years or so, I have worked in a wide range of business types, including: private, public, family owned, entrepreneurial, local, global, for profit, not for-profit, religious, public sector and government.

To be successful (and sometimes to survive), I have had to learn how to distill the universal principles of effective change leadership into bite-sized chunks for ready application.

These principles all hang off of this definition of change leadership:

“Change leadership is the art and then the science of influencing people to engage in change and then navigating a journey together from their current state to a desired future state.”

As a leader, why should you be interested in this definition? Because it holds powerful secrets to building scalable businesses, transforming business cultures, developing higher performing teams, resolving conflict, aligning strategic priorities, and innovating and executing.

In short, this definition points to critical competencies that leaders need to do their jobs well and to earn the rewards that flow to highly effective leaders.

If that isn’t motivation enough, consider the track record.

Leading Change: A Dismal Track Record

With a global survey of 1500 leaders, IBM drives the point home: 70% of change initiatives fail to meet project objectives of time, cost and quality. Moreover, only 20% of organizations can be considered competent at leading change.

John Kotter, who branded "change leadership" with his 1996 book, Leading Change (republished 2012), sums it up: we are simply not that good at leading change.

An important study published in the Harvard Business Review last March digs into the nuance here. Within organizational silos, leaders and teams have a high degree of confidence that commitments are kept (84%). Yet venture across the silo walls? The confidence level drops (9%). Needless to say, most change initiatives require cross-business and function commitments.

The fact is change leaders risk angering the anti-change antibodies that lie in wait within most teams and organizations.

So How Can You Think About Leading Change In A Different Way That Is More Likely To Succeed?

First, it’s important to distinguish between leading and managing change. That's because the two are often thrown in together. They are, in fact, different.

Managers focus on tasks and outcomes, while leaders focus on relationships and conditions for success because they know community-building comes before problem solving.

Managers negotiate commitments, while leaders inspire because they know inspiration fuels engagement.

Managers act like they know what's going to happen, while leaders ask people to lean into the experiences required for authentic transformation.

Change Leadership Is The Art … And Then The Science

There is definitely a science to leading change. I wholeheartedly embrace and use a number of well-tested frameworks for critical path analyses, setting performance metrics, and driving high ROI.

But getting back to my definition, the art of leading always comes first. Always.

Ask yourself: what exactly do highly effective change leaders do when they lead change?

They envision leading change as a human endeavor. They know deeply all work gets done in the context of human relationships.

Stated tactically, with a nod to Machiavelli, change leaders ameliorate, if not eliminate, the conditions that spawn the debilitating political machinations of those who may oppose things being different.

There are two dimension to the art of leading change, one inner, the other outer.

First, the inner. Effective change leaders are accountable to their individual ways-of-being – conscious or not. How they show up is what drives that nature and potential of their relationships with the people they lead.

Second, the outer. As a former CMO for GE told me, “Everybody is excited about change. Until it has to do with them.” Navigating the antibodies begins and ends with your personal style or ways-of-being as a leader, and thus your ability to incite the passions in others to join you.

This is how it works: If you are not getting the results that you want then the solution is always the same. One, take a sober and thoughtful look at the nature of the relationships that you are the source of. Two, take personal accountability for the nature of those relationships. And, three take intentional and consistent actions to transform those relationships.

Go It Alone At Your Own Risk

Again, leading change is never a solo activity, or a command and control endeavor. Leading change is a collective endeavor accomplished within the context of human relationships.

For this commonsense reason, leading change is a team activity — allies become coalitions, coalitions become high-performing teams and high-performing teams work together to lead change. As such, developing high-performing teams is the engine for leading change. It is a critical step in any major change initiative.

For the maverick generals out there: sure, you can force the issue. You might drive activity but you won’t create breakthroughs towards lasting change. The most insightful and clearest strategies, plans or roadmaps are worthless and impotent in the context of ineffective mindsets, ways-of-being, relationships or cultures.

In other words: culture really does eat strategy.

So how do you compel others to join the coalition for change?

A Bit About The Science: Creating A Compelling Case For Change

In my definition, I state that leading change is about engineering a journey together from the current state to a desired future state.

This takes us more into the science. For all key players to be on the same page, they need a unifying and objective description of the current state, a shared vision of a desired future state and consensus on the next steps on the journey.

This means that you need to create and align with others around a sober and realistic understanding of the current state - the good, the bad and the ugly.

It also means that you need to create and align with others around a compelling future state, one that is not just a continuation of the “as is” but a courageous commitment to the “will become.”

The result is a Gap Analysis. What gaps need to be closed to get from here to there? This establishes shared priorities. If done well, a gap analysis precisely identifies the highest return investments – in the right sequence – needed to arrive at your desired destination.

Here’s the obvious caveat. How you define the gap depends on the questions you ask.

I have learned, and am constantly refining, the kinds of questions I use that align a team around it's current state, and that enable the team members to imagine a future state so compelling that people are willing to drop the politics, come together, sleeves rolled up, to work as a team. Here are the categories of questions:

  1. PURPOSE − Are we a strong team with a clear purpose and do we hold high expectations of the team leader, each other and ourselves?
  2. FOCUS − Do we understand and have the data on our current state, do we understand our future state and are we aligned around priorities?
  3. MINDSET − Do we think and act with accountability and demonstrate leadership, keeping us inspired and inspiring others?
  4. ROLES − Does every key strategy, decision and activity have a single owner who is accountable for execution and owns driving to resolution?
  5. INTERDEPENDENCIES− Are we clear where shared work exists; are we collaborating effectively? Do we have clear and effective rules for engagement and protocols?
  6. STRATEGIES − Are leaders advocating and then aligning ways forward from the perspectives of their roles but also of a business leader?
  7. IMPLEMENTATION − Are we communicating a compelling way-forward, taking actions, course correcting, and delivering tangible results in a way that creates confidence and trust?

(Here’s a video about the framework for these questions. It’s called The Seven Principles For Team Effectiveness.)

Again, these questions have to do with how I define change leadership:

  1. Navigating the art of human relationships in which all work is done...
  2. influence all key stakeholders to positively engage, fully, heart and mind...
  3. ...while leveraging an analytical framework that aligns all key players around the highest return investments to reach a desired future state.