Change Management Starts with Leadership

Organizational change initiatives fall apart 50-70% of the time.

There are many reasons change efforts fail, but according to Bill Pasmore, who teaches about implementing change in an organization and studies how change works (or doesn’t), “lack of leadership” is one predictable problem.

Pasmore doesn’t sugarcoat the difficulty of leading complex, ongoing change — but he won’t let you off the hook, either. “Lack of leadership is the barrier to necessary organizational transformation,” Pasmore says. “And the role of mid- and senior-level leaders in making change happen is critical.”

Signs Your Company Has a Problem With Change

Pasmore says it’s time to step up your individual and collective change leadership ability when any of the following conditions exist:

  1. Little or no direction. Rather than giving a roadmap or next steps, people are asked to “do better,” with little guidance about specifically what doing better means.
  2. No clear action plan. People are told what to do but left on their own to figure out how. Leaders are minimally involved.
  3. Weak commitments. Leaders withdraw support for change at the first sign of difficulties or shift priorities before the change can be completed.
  4. No value seen in supporting change. People who try to make changes happen are not rewarded or encouraged, and those who resist change are not confronted.
  5. Active defiance. Leaders openly side with those who oppose change from above.
  6. No interest in personal change. Leaders punish those who suggest that leaders themselves may need to change.
  7. Old patterns rule. Leaders say they support the change, but in fact continue to pursue the same priorities as in the past.
  8. Looking the other way. Leaders are unwilling to confront their peers or superiors when their behavior is problematic.
  9. Refusing input. Leaders won’t listen to input from people who have ideas.
  10. Holding back. Leaders are not willing to make the tough decisions that often accompany real change.
  11. All talk. No action. Leaders support change publicly but do little or nothing to drive change when they have the opportunity to do so.
  12. Waiting. And waiting. Leaders await further clarity before taking action.
  13. Oblivious action. Leaders continue to press forward blindly when the change obviously is not working as intended, rather than stopping to listen and figure out what should be happening.
  14. Arms-length interest. Leaders abdicate control of the change process to internal or external consultants.

Chances are, you see some of these reactions in the leaders around you — and may even recognize your own struggles to lead change. If so, any new strategy, process, goal, or system is at risk.

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Challenges to Implementing Change in an Organization

In his book, Leading Continuous Change: Navigating Churn in the Real World, Pasmore says the challenges for implementing change in an organization fall into 4 categories:

  • Understanding the need for change. Leaders make too much or too little of the need for change. They try solutions that are familiar but not appropriate under the evolving circumstances. Their commitments to change lack true conviction, leading to abandonment later on.
  • Framing the change. Leaders set the scope of the change too broadly or too narrowly. They fail to align important stakeholders or get early input from key people in the organization about factors that could affect success. Executives allow consultants to lead them down the wrong path by advocating a preferred approach rather than what is really needed. And they don’t assess readiness before proceeding.
  • Undertaking the change. Leaders may be surprised to find that they are not prepared for their roles and have underestimated the personal challenge. Or they discover that the change will be more difficult than imagined. Change may be a struggle because leaders uncover issues they should have known about, or find that as things progress they are unable to adapt or adjust to new realities.
  • Sustaining the change. Leaders are dealing with change overload; they have difficulty sorting out what is really important and compete for the resources required for implementation. Keeping focus and commitment to any single, new initiative or change can easily interfere with another area of change. In today’s reality of churn, sustaining change is exponentially more difficult than standard change management advice would have you believe.

“No one sets out to fail at change,” says Pasmore. “Yet it’s too easy to believe that we will succeed where others have failed.”

3 Steps to Manage Change Better

What’s a leader to do when implementing change in an organization? Pasmore offers a bit of advice:

Infographic outlining 3 steps to manage change better and implementing change in an organization

1. Stop relying on good intentions. Realize that change involves more obstacles than you thought. Admit you don’t have all the resources and tools and answers.

And understand that as a leader, you, personally, will struggle with change.

2. Start thinking about continuous change, not just single change. This is your reality and that of the other people in your organization.

“We don’t have the luxury of dealing with a single change initiative or isolated challenge,” Pasmore says.

People experience all of the changes together, muddled and mixed in with whatever else is going on. You know this, but you need to factor it into your strategies and plans.

3. Quit assuming that you are prepared to succeed. Collect data to assess readiness and capability (yours and your organization’s) rather than rely strictly on a gut feeling, hope or positive thinking.

Understand how you will need to shift mindsets, build rigor and discipline, and learn new skills. Learn more about helping everyone else to do the same in our article, How to be a Successful Change Leader. Building greater capacity for leading and living change is the only way to go.

Ready to Take the Next Step?

Foster change leadership in your organization with Live Online Custom Leadership Training tailored to to your unique challenges. Available topics include Innovation and Breakthrough Thinking, Leading Through Change, Executive Team Alignment, and more.

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