Written by

Alan Cooper


March 23, 2016

Why Leaders Need to Lead Change, Not Just Manage It

Alan Cooper Learning Expert Blog

In the majority of circumstances, major change efforts in organizations are doomed to failure. Depending on the study cited, it is estimated that roughly only 30% - 50% of change initiatives meet their desired outcomes. Failed efforts can have disastrous consequences for the organization, from significant financial losses, to decreased employee morale, lost opportunities, and wasted resources.  This exorbitant failure rate of change initiatives is usually due to the lack of a formal change management program and ultimately a failure of leadership.

CGS, initiatives, change
Source: http://www.kenblanchard.com/img/pub/blanchard_mastering_the_art_of_chang...


A History of Change Management

The formal discipline of change management did not appear in the literature until the 1990’s, prior to this era change initiatives appeared to ignore corporate culture and the organizations heart and soul, its people.  A prime example of this was the reengineering boon of the 80’s and 90’s, where massive projects resulted in large scale workforce reductions and ultimately unsustainable results.  In hind site, these change efforts failed to take into account culture and people, and were consequently doomed to failure. A review of reengineering programs in the late 1990’s revealed that, not only did over 70% of the programs fail, but they actually made things worse for the organization that initiated them.  The founders of Reengineering themselves issued formal apologies in the form of interviews and magazine articles stating that in their quest for groundbreaking change they had failed to take into account the people.

Over the past 15 or so years, the field of change management has itself changed as leaders have realized its importance and that change is paramount to the success of any organization. Organizations must change or die, in the immortal words of W. Edwards Deming; “It is not necessary to change, survival is not mandatory.  Due to this realization, the field has grown significantly and matured as a discipline, moving from looking at how individuals experience and react to change, to applying the psychological concepts of change to organizations. Countless articles and books have been written on the subject, such as John Kotter’s seminal work; Leading Change, and the Spencer Johnson fable; Who Moved My Cheese?


How can business leaders ensure successful change?

So how can leaders make sure they take into consideration organizational culture and their employees in order to ensure the best chance of success for their change initiatives? They need to lead change, not just manage it.  Managing change implies using tools and techniques to direct the change effort and incorporate the new way of doing things into the organization, while leading change implies an overall strategy and incorporation of people and culture into our change efforts.  Tasks are managed, people are led.  Although there have been numerous change management approaches described in the literature, there is no cookbook approach to leading a large scale change initiative.

CGS, change management, funding
Source: CGS 2016 Learning Trends Report

Every change effort is unique and organizations have unique cultures that must be fully understood by the leadership. However, if we follow some essential principles, we can increase our chances of successfully implementing change within our organization: 

  1. First, prior to starting any change initiative, we must be aware of our organizational capacity.  Do we currently have other competing change initiatives under way, or have we recently completed an initiative or failed at one?  Our employees only have a certain capacity, and overwhelming that capacity will result in “change fatigue” and in the failure of even the best planned and intended project.  A good way to start any change effort is with a change readiness survey.  This survey will give leadership a clear picture of the organizational change capacity and the projected ability to sustain a major change effort over time.  An initially successful change effort that eventually fails can leave more scars on an organization than one that fails from the start.
  2. Second, leaders must be exceptionally focused and incredible communicators. They must show their passion and drive for the initiative, but they can’t do it alone.  The change effort must be driven at all levels within the organization and leadership is responsible to inspire and engage the employees to achieve success.  After all, if change must be accepted by the workers, they must have input into it.  The most successful change methodologies, for example G.E.s workout, and process improvement philosophies, such as Lean, have significant input from the employees that are directly involved in the work and processes being transformed. Leadership must engage employees deeply and meaningfully with the change efforts, and create an emotional bond that will commit employees to the initiative. 
  3. And most importantly, change efforts must take into account the organizational culture, and even if one of the goals is to change the culture, must work within the current one. It has been said that “culture eats strategy” and this has been proven over and over again in corporate society. Those leading the change efforts must fully understand the organizational culture and how they can use it to their advantage.  Otherwise it will eat them and their strategy for breakfast. 

This is not to say that change doesn’t also needs to be managed, but regardless of the change methodology used, following the principles outlined above will give the organization the greatest chance of a successful change initiative.  After all, as Dilbert said, “Change is good… You go first.


About our Industry Expert:

Alan Cooper has over 25 years of experience in the area of strategic organizational transformation, with a specific focus on organization development (OD), operational excellence, patient experience, change management, teambuilding, HR, and leadership development.  His work is consistently aligned with an overarching emphasis on the achievement of an organization’s strategic mission. Dr. Cooper has developed and taught courses on effective leadership, customer service, system dynamics, coaching, teambuilding, emotional intelligence, improvement sciences, talent acquisition and other organization development topics to senior leaders, clinical executives, management, and staff.

Dr. Cooper holds a Ph.D. in experimental psychology and an MBA (with distinction) in management from Adelphi University.  He also holds several certificates in leadership and management from Cornell University, University of Michigan, and University of Notre Dame.  He is a nationally recognized speaker in the areas of process improvement, customer satisfaction, leadership development, and corporate learning. 

Written by

Alan Cooper


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