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What Separates Thriving Organizations from the Rest?

What separates Thriving Organizations from those who just get by has been a fascination throughout my career. What follows distills a significant part that journey that led to conducting a global survey which lead to us writing “Focusing Change To Win” (2014). It’s main goal was to find out how much had changed in differentiating how Thriving organizations. The main conclusion that they still see competing and strategizing as being intimately linked.  Strategic change and competition are seen as joint and inseparable processes. This means that they:

Competitive Foundations

  • Adapt competitively to external change by leaders having the capacity and capability to adjust to external change.
  • Accept that strategic change is a continuous process on three dimensions – content, context and process.
  • Understand strategic progress is neither linear nor sequential and so does not follow easily identifiable phases.  The pattern really is continuous, iterative, uncertain and messy
  • See competitiveness as not just against direct competitors but against the forces within their industry, country and globally.
  • Identify and understand the competitive forces at play and how they change over time,
  • Mobilize resources necessary for competitive responses in time and through time

1.       Assessing Competitive Environments

Since 1980s research shows that thriving firms assess their external competitive world not just technically or by relying on a specialist function but by developing open learning systems. They work on ensuring that:

  • Assessing competitive environments is not the preserve of one function or person.
  • Creating strategies emerge from the ways a company acquires, interprets and processes competitive environmental information – at different levels.

Its characteristics are:

  • Not a single act or done at one point
  • Lacks innocence or isolation – people’s values shape the what and how of analysis
  • Individual or collective beliefs of managers fundamentally affect environment assessments
  • Identifying key competitive components and choice between alternatives are controversial
  • Functions are more aware of their environments
  • Links insights and ideas as to how to exploit emerging opportunities

1.1      Why is this so important?

A Deloitte’s survey showed no correlation between the performance of firms and whether they had a formal planning function (The Economist 1989). Subsequent studies up to 2013 showed no clear picture of the relationship between formal planning and firm performance. [2]

1.2      Sense-Making

Conversely the ability to absorb, process and act upon data from the environment, at all levels is a hallmark of success.

The problem of not only environmental “sensing”, but also “sense-making”. Sensing tends to be by individuals, often specialists, whereas sense making nearly always involves collective processing by asking questions like: What does this mean for the firm as a whole?

Management can then monitor the extent to which the firm is:Data to Foresight

  • Sensitive to environmental signals
  • Collectively making sense of those signals

The sub-text to understanding the environment is the creation of the learning organization.

Successful sensing and sense making is based on four factors:

  • Key people prepared to champion assessment techniques which increase openness
  • Structure and culture encourages environment-facing of behavior and belief
  • Environmental pressures are recognized
  • Sense making is multi-functional which is core to operating the business

Even with these factors present there is no guarantee anything would change without a set of actions which stabilizes and impels the assessment capacity forward.  There is a need for networks which link key stakeholders and interest groups.

Central to gaining competitive advantage is, “to discover how….creativity takes place”.  It points to the capacity of the whole organization to learn from its environment.  It means that sophisticated environmental sensing can be rendered virtually useless if collective learning is not an embedded process within the firm.

The value of such learning ensures the full implications of the firm’s view of its environment is captured, understood and retained at all levels.  It can then inform:

  • Actions over the long term
  • How future shifts in the environment can be approached.

2       Leading Competitive Change

Of course ensuring that the environment is understood is important but the leadership challenges is ensuring that the organization learns and acts on such understandings.

There are over 200 leadership definitions covering many perspectives (Ross 1991).  From this it is possible to separate out three models:

  • Transactional – to exchange money, jobs and security for compliance
  • Transformational – to encourage others to strive for higher goals
  • Representational – to represent features of the change process/organization to others, often not their direct reports

Yet insufficient attention is given to how unpredictable change really is that makes the prospect of control illusive. Assertive action alone has limited value and may well be dangerous.  Paradoxically, it is the accumulation of more modest preparatory actions that is all-important.  This radical gradualism includes

  • Assessing the political implications of a given strategy for instance, through problem-sensing and climate setting.
  • Shaping the process in the longer term rather than through a single event.

The main weaknesses of earlier approaches were the search for universally applicable leader behaviours.  Whereas effective change leadership requires actions appropriate to its context.  In fact, there is evidence that solidifying apparently successful leadership behaviour into a single mould can become a competitive liability, e.g., Hill Samuel in 90’s and 1970s.[3]

Evidence continues to point to the need for variation in leadership ever since Manz et al 1989, and the need for “multiple influence procedures”.

“Leading change is not a one way relationship emanating solely form the leader. Leaders are themselves affected by the forces which seek they seek to manage”

Attempts in practice to achieve such a static, singular fit almost inevitably come undone as both leader and circumstances change.

One of the strongest features of Focusing Change To Win’s survey (2014)[2] which endorses Pettigrew and Whipp’s research is that leading change does not imply one leader.  Great emphasis in those organizations studied and from survey contributors was placed on:

  • Creating a broader notion of collective leadership at the highest level
  • Inculcating over time a complimentary sense of leadership/responsibility at all levels

Both are vital for linking strategic and operational change.

2.1        Success Criteria

The critical tasks in leadership when managing change are more incremental often less spectacular than prevailing press images, i.e. Radical Gradualism.  Radical Gradualism

It involves linking actions of others at every level in the organization.  Early and bold actions can be counter productive.  More productive is creating a climate of change readiness while at the same time laying out new directions, but prior to precise actions being taken

The conditions needed are:

  • Building a receptive climate, which involves justifying why the changes should take place
  • Building the capability to mount the change
  • Establishing a change agenda which sets direction, visions and values, which may take several attempts to get it right.[4]

Once in place then more direct mechanisms can be used which means that the skills of leading change therefore centers on coping with a series of dualities and dilemmas.

3       Linking Strategic & Operational Change

Confronting strategic change adequately is a live, difficult and complex process.  A good analogy would be a fermentation process with all its connotations of volatility.

Too often change management is seduced into the fallacy linear sequence of goal setting and resource allocation brought on by the need to provide spurious certainty for senior executives.

The major problems of such an approach are that they:

  • Underestimate the importance of the internal operation of the firm
  • Ignore the critical dimension of process

Many approaches analyze snapshots where what’s really needed is to study motion pictures.  So increasingly the uncertainty of our environment leads us to see strategic change involving streams of activity across time where managerial ability to cope with ambiguity is paramount.  There is no easily isolated logic.

The linkage with operational change needs to be conscious and allowed to develop.  It is the cumulative effect of separate acts of implementation that can immensely powerful.  The position is:

  • Translating strategic intent into operational form does not occur by single step or conversion, or a neat sequence of steps to a logical outcome; it may include clusters of iterative action in order to break through ignorance or resistance;
  • Enduring aborted efforts or the build up of slow incremental phases of adjustment which then allow short bursts of concentrated action to take place.
  • Separate attention is needed to open up the organization to the need for change and in due course to reach closure and reinforce the changes made
  • Sustain pace and energy of the process –  momentum cannot be taken for granted
  • Attempting to carry out a given strategy invariably leads to its re-formulation.
  • Iterative, cumulative and reformation-in-use translation processes (from strategy to operations) yields dividends in competitiveness
  • Translating strategic intent into operational reality requires a compound set of techniques in order to make use of iterative. The challenges of analytical, educational and political problems in the translation process have to be met.  Thus the new knowledge and insights into a given strategy that arise from its implementation have to be captured, retained and diffused within the organization.

4       Developing Competitive Human resources

In this context Human Resource Management (HRM) relates to the total set of knowledge, skills and attitudes that firms need to compete.  It requires a longer term process that creates successive development spirals.

Specifically the role of HRM is to:

  • Promote and develop the role of knowledge as a key competitive and differentiating weapon.
  • Facilitate learning  that generates, maintains and regenerates that knowledge
  • Find ways of exposing knowledge contained in the procedural repertoires of the firm
  • Ensure that the knowledge base of the firm matches changing competitive conditions

4.1      Collective learning can indeed be a vital “invisible” differentiable asset.

Learning is not just individuals acquiring new knowledge.  Rather, it refers how people collectively change their knowledge, values and shared mental models of their company and its markets.  Learning therefore does not preclude training, it simply goes further.  The fallibility of conventional training regimes shows that only between 25%-40% of the intended knowledge is ever conveyed.  The need is for a much broader approach which embraces

  • Structural adjustment
  • Experimentation
  • Development of appropriate language
  • Reshaping attitudes and values.

The second major requirement concerns the assumptions behind the learning.  It involves spirals or cycles of observation, reflection, hypothesizing, experimentation, action and “hands-on” experience.  Knowledge in the mind of the experimenters then has to be codified and diffused within the organization through behaviour and support.

4.2      “Unlearning”

Often overlooked is the necessity for breaking down entrenched knowledge and beliefs – “unlearning”.

The ability to shed outmoded knowledge, techniques and beliefs as well as learn and deploy new ones to carry out strategies is crucial.  Crucial to have the ability to do so faster and more effectively than your competitors becomes almost priceless competitive advantage.

5       Change Management Coherence

This the ability to hold a firm’s strategic thinking together, while at the same time carrying out the reshaping and adjustment which new or emergent strategies demand.

It relies on managing the tensions between the organization’s new strategic position and both the internal and external relationships of the firm, while integrating these two over time

The problem of developing consistency in managing strategic change and competitiveness is that it relies on people embracing both thought and action, intra- and inter-firm relations.  Attaining coherence relies on solving analytical, educational and political problems while managing strategic change and competitiveness.

The problem of attaining coherence lies in how often official goals and internal dynamics diverge.   In other words, contradiction within corporations prevents change – the formidable obstacles to which many give little attention. As Kanter (1983, 2013) shows there are many “rules for stifling innovation”.  These include

  • Multiple layers of approval for new projects;
  • Intensive control and counting;
  • Secretive decision making;
  • Suspicion of new ideas.

This is the most complex of the five factors.  In many ways the requirements for coherence arise from the demands of the other four. Its subsidiary features are:

5.1      Building Networks

One of Coherence’s core capabilities is developing primary and secondary networks in order to build up, for example, the vital set of complimentary assets which it needs to exploit its knowledge base.

  • Primary networks – relationships between a firm and others which are directly concerned with generating new knowledge bases.
  • Secondary networks – wider relationships which affect the firm’s process of generating and altering its knowledge indirectly

These networks provide:

  • Competitive advantage through co-ordination.
  • Stronger value chains, they can also contribute to changing competitive position of firms and industries.
  • Co-operation which can be learnt including; local cultural and market conditions, techniques of partner relations development, negotiation skills related to joint ventures and structural arrangements specific to collaboration.
  • Collaboration competencies which are often truly invisible assets which cannot be readily purchased and controlled.

5.2      Strategic Positioning

This can be generated by attending to four elements in strategic thinking:

  • Consistency – not present inconsistent goals
  • Agility – by adaptive  responses to changes in its environment
  • Advantage – continually working to maintain competitive advantage
  • Feasibility – avoid creating unsolvable problems and overwhelm its resources

In other words, the strategic position is directed towards creating identifiable competitive bases

that does not impair its whole implementation

5.3      Secondary management action

The range of secondary and complimentary management action is crucial;

  • Coherence of purpose among senior management, even though individuals may differ
  • HRM must produce a knowledge base complimentary to other strategic conditioning features
  • Coherence in the treatment of customers, suppliers, distributors and collaborators
  • Manage a series of interrelated and emergent changes


Today’s disruptive technologies are accelerants that speed change, already fueled by customer and competitor access to competitive information. The key to thriving in such a climate is creating agile structures, processes and developing people that are change expectant. This can be achieved if leaders see their role as enablers rather than controllers and can distribute both responsibility and authority to the lowest levels in their organizations. For this to happen it means that everyone needs to be aligned  and committed to the organization’s “Mission Intent” where leaders are translators and alignment specialists so that every change is not treated with casual assumption and arrogance that “everyone will get it!”

[1] This is based on Pettigrew & Whipp (1991), Nick Anderson (1996) Masters Dissertation
[2]Focusing Change To Win – Kelly Nwosu & Nick Anderson (2014)
[3] Some studies found positive relationships while some studies found negative relationships between strategic planning and performance (Fletcher et al., 2002; Glaister et al.,2008; Heriot et al., 2004; Hopkin and Hopkins, 1997; Kraus et al., 2006; O’Regan et al., 2008, Rudd et al., 2008; Shrader et al., 1984; Veskaisri et al., 2007).

Similarly several studies did not even find any relationship between strategic planning and performance at all for smaller enterprises (Fletcher et al., 2002; Kraus et al., 2006; Veskaisri et al., 2007). Sharader et al., (1984) found no systematic relationship between formal strategic planning and financial performance. Unni (1981), Robinson and Pearce, (1983), Sharader et al., (1989), Birley and Westhead (1990) and Covin (1991) found relationships that were small or insignificant (Fletcher et al., 2002
[3] Bass (2008) predicted the continued importance of both personal traits and situations to leadership. Bass argued that large, purely transactional organizations would give way to transformational ones as modern leaders become more innovative, responsive, flexible, and (Journal of Business Studies Quarterly 2014, Volume 5, Number 4, Jim Allen McCleskey)
[4] See Section 7, Focusing Change To Win – How Effectively Are You Communicating Change?

Leading to the Essence of Your Organization

Listen to the Radio Program – 15mins

It’s time we had a debate about how we develop rewarding working relationships today. (Rewarding not just productive).  It is the competitive core – energizing people and harnessing technologies better than anyone else.

The ultimate standard for such rewarding relationships is a leader’s ability to sustain superior results over an extended period.  The debate should focus three

The Gordian Knot


  • What does it mean to lead?
  • What does it mean to follow?
  • When do you choose one from another?

Why is this debate needed as we climb away from recession?

People have lost trust. Many business leaders, too many unfortunately,  are seen as self-serving and subservient to shareholders.

What happened? “Org Chart Thinking” increasingly doesn’t work. Knowledge workers respond to learning not “command & control”. Plus, young people don’t want to wait in line to lead. Most important, people are searching for genuine satisfaction and meaning. For example, “restoring people to full life and health.” Medtronic.

You need plasticity to deal with complexity

Here’s three aspects from Bill George:

Aligning: Sustaining superior performance relies on aligning people with their company’s essence by distributing and empowering leaders at all levels. This is the most difficult task. Aligned employees who commit to that essence want to be part of something greater.  For example: Johnson & Johnson’s Credo is a classic that guides everyone’s actions.

Empowering: Traditional leaders delegate limited amounts of power to keep control. We don’t live in that environment anymore. In contrast, leaders need to empower all levels while ensuring commitments are met.

Just because people don’t have direct reports doesn’t mean they shouldn’t lead. We need empowered leaders who set standards for other employees. For example:

“I make heart valves that save people’s life. I do my quality control because if one valve I make fails, someone will die…and I couldn’t live with causing someone’s death”.

Collaborating: Businesses today are too complex to foster  a culture of individuality. Achieving lasting solutions needs collaboration that spans organizations, customers, suppliers, and even competitors. Leaders must foster collaborative spirit. For example: CEO Sam Palmisano transformed IBM’s bureaucracy into an “integrated global network,” by shifting to “leading by values” and breaking up silos that prevented collaboration.

Organizations filled with aligned employees focused on serving customers will outperform traditional competitors every time. Top-down leaders may make short-term results, but only the really authentic leaders can galvanize sustained long-term performance.

(Adapted from Bill George’s perspective of Aligning, Empowering and Collaborating. Bill is Professor of Management, Harvard Business School and former CEO of Medtronic)

To what extent are leaders ready for coping and thriving in accelerating change?

Complexity is not going away – its exploding. What we mean by leadership and leading needs to be redefined.

Worryingly surveys show, for example:

  • Only 40% of senior executives rated themselves as “very effective” manage complexity – What happened to the other 60%!
  • Less than half believed their enterprises are ready for highly volatility and increasing complex environments.

So, I want to look at why leaders should focus on the essence of their organizations. The Essence is an amalgam of mission, vision, values, intent and ethics. These components are the focus of aligning and realigning people, rather than delivering the corporate stone tablets down from Mount Sinai (or wherever the senior management strategic planning retreat was held).

“When expectations are articulated but ignored, an important part of the company’s shared purpose is shut away. By contrast, when expectations are made a central part of the company’s shared purpose, and put out in full view, they become like a beacon: a guiding light as to how to move toward a common goal. It becomes easier to speak honestly, or to reveal information, when people know that this behavior is okay” (based on Peter Senge’s Fifth Discipline Fieldbook)

Sustaining an organization’s essence is a dynamic process that require everyone’s engagement to define, yes, but crucially, reaffirm, refine and redefine (when needed) under changing situations. And don’t let that word “everyone” slip you by this is an organizationally deep process.

It’s only by Leaders “inter-reacting” that they can develop people’s shared clarity about the organization’s essence – “what we stand for!” From shared clarity comes confidence, from confidence comes cohesion and from cohesion comes the freedom to decide and act. That’s how organizations will stay on track today. Many people making many decisions true to their organization’s essence.

I have heard of interacting but not “inter-reacting” Why is it an important distinction in terms of leading in complexity?

                   The Organization’s Brain

It takes raises attention above the bland to a richer form of communication – “inter-reacting” Its communication which is neither top-down or bottom-up.

Think of each person as a neuron in their “Organization’s Brain” and the lines of expectations with others as synaptic connections.  One way expectations are weak synaptic connections until they are agreed and committed to by another neuron.   You need an expectation alignment process (like AlEx™) that facilitates and measures the creation of aligned expectations so the “Organization Brain” grows and learns to handle complex change. It becomes  effectively self-diagnosing, exposing wasted energy (on unnecessary tasks) or lack of resources (materials, knowledge or support).

You need plasticity to deal with complexity

So, as each neuron fires its sets in train a whole series of inter-connections and reactions. There is continual feedback and reaction that builds plasticity.

Let’s bring in technology now as part of leading in complexity. What are the likely dangers of not rooting technology in a company’s essence and strategy?

It brings me back to those three questions and the challenge ahead. As Charlene Li put it in her book Open Leadership

…let’s face it information leakage is everywhere, your company missteps spreading over all the internet to all your customers, business partners and employees….an even if you don’t want their opinions they will be out there.”

“The question isn’t whether you will be transparent, authentic and real but, how much will you let go and be open in the face of new technologies. Transparency, authenticity and …being real are the by-products of being open”

This means that shared clarity and therefor aligning people will be ever more difficult to set up and sustain, especially if people don’t know what their organization stands for.

This problem magnifies when there is no coherent place for technology in your firm’s strategy. Technology is like  Maslow’s Hammer, he said,

                          Maslow’s Hammer

“It is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”

Technology increases the illusion of greater control which can feed leader’s Control Addiction”. More measurement equals more control. But measuring what is easy to measure can have the very opposite effect. The problem is that most of what is easy to measure has already happened. What is difficult is forecasting what is likely to happen. We can’t spend more time looking through the “rear view mirror” when we have a winding road ahead of us. Technology’s cheapness and speed feeds this addiction by access to evermore data and information at the cost of acquiring knowledge and wisdom. The first two are techno-centric the last two are people-centric. So, it detracts from what leadership is:

“Leadership is a relationship between those who aspire to lead and those who choose to follow”

(The Leadership Challenge by Kouzes & Posner)

This relationship becomes critical as organizational structures flatten fueled by more knowledge working. It needs leadership  which remains true to the organization’s essence while flexing to changing situations. It’s not about leaders taking more control but “loosening the reins”. The more leaders let go, then reciprocal relationships and the power of self-control can grow. We are not short of examples of moving toward self-management. For example, Gore-Tex, Whole Foods, Google etc.

“having the confidence & humility to give up the need to be in control while inspiring commitment from people to accomplish goals” (Charlene Li – Open Leadership)

Today, a paradigm shift is underway fueled by social technology and rapid change. .

Why do  you think executives are having difficulty finding and developing leaders that can thrive?

Doing more with less, multi-tasking and growing doubt that we may be doing the wrong things are not good proving grounds for the leaders we need. Decision-making, expectations and technology are compressed. Under such compression, we lose the ability to stand back and assimilate.

Consequently, entrenched expediency  leads us into solving one problem so quickly that we find we have now created five more problems. We are so busy trying to solve problems there’s no time for “Where the hell are we going?

These conditions are not good to selecting or developing leaders who can work well under fluid and complex conditions

What’s happening to leaders and followers relationships in such turbulence?

Imagine the impact on a fear-based command and control culture. Subordinate leaders are just “waiting for the other shoe to drop” and the blame game to start:

The Blame Game

Everybody was sure Somebody would do it.  Anybody could have done it, but Nobody did it. Somebody got angry about that because it was Everybody’s job. Everybody thought Anybody could do it, but Nobody realized that Everybody wouldn’t do it. It ended that Everybody blamed Somebody.

Reinforced, of course, when the guilty are promoted and the innocent hung.

OK. I get the need for change but let’s get practical. If I am a leader today, what can I do about leading in complexity?

Ask yourself:

  • How much of my needs to control are bound up with my own insecurities and ego? And
  • How much control do I really need to produce the right outcomes?
  • How well do I really engage those I lead? (If you think this is the same as participation, you are wrong!)
  • How aligned are my people with the Organization’s Essence and where it’s headed?

Your answers gauge just how reciprocal your relationships really are, and the  extent of shared clarity about your organization’s essence.

The key is “inter-reaction” when teams who are closest to the “coal face” can openly discuss success and failure. The purpose is to take lessons learned and use them to repeat success and avoid failure. Such outcomes are the foundation of “inter-reaction” that ultimately creates rewarding relationships.

Benefits of Inter-reaction

  • Understanding more clearly original intent, what thought processes drove decisions, what outcomes resulted, their real and likely consequences. So, as much attention is devoted to the “Why” as the “What”.
  • Developing better solutions because of understanding the reasoning used. So, future mistakes will decrease.
  • Reporting outcomes of such reviews to make recommendations that increase others learning. So, avoiding mistakes and capitalizing on successes.
  • Embedding regular open communication and knowledge-sharing nurtures strengths and remedies shortcomings that improve morale,
  • Building distributed leadership and growing the next leader generation

Above all, inter-reaction creates the synergies needed to develop best-of breed customer value and most of all great people. Successful inter-reaction ensures the team produces  greater impact than individuals could do on their own.

Can you give readers something they could use to start improving inter-reaction in their inter-reaction?

How’s you OODA Loop?

During the Korean War,  Col. John Boyd, USAF observed that the North Koreans had better jet fighters. But, what he did notice was that US pilots had superior skills. He concluded that pilots were too focused on overcoming their technical inferiority rather using their superior combat skills. So, he came up with the idea:

“What if we can make faster decisions than the enemy? After all, we already have the ability to execute better than they do”

He came up with a fast cycling decision-making process:

  • Observe
  • Orient
  • Decide
  • Act……Rapidly

He concluded decision-making is the result of rational behavior in which problems are a cycle of Observation, Orientation (situational awareness), Decision and Action. This loop (OODA Loop) enabled US fighter pilots to succeed in combat because they increased their decision-making speed which meant they outmaneuvered and confused opposing pilots.   It is now used by the U.S. Marines and other organizations.

Such shared cycles help people stand back from their emotions, objectify problems and make people’s thought processes transparent. This is crucial to distributing leadership. Without this transparency leaders can’t see how to coach effectively.

This seems deceptively simple and I am sure it is not, knowing you…..

All these processes like AAR, SOAP, PACO etc. only work if there is shared clarity and alignment on the essence of what the organization stands for and that selected tools are embedded into the very fabric of rewarding relationships

What’s your tip of the blog

Leader’s greatest impact is when they motivate followers to action by appealing to their shared sense of essence. What is important and worth doing well.

“(It) occurs when people engage in such a way that leaders and followers raise one another to higher levels of motivation and morality. Their purposes, which might have started out as separate but related become fused.”

A point of reflection:

  • How much do you focus on improving your alignment with your people not just on tasks but on the essence of what you and your organization stand for?
  • We have all spent thousands of hours on honing our technical and professional skills but, how much on our leadership skills?

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Gaining People’s Commitment for Change – Leader’s Checklist

You would think that as leaders grow, their people would grow. Unfortunately, the opposite is often true. Leader’s growth leads to separation and misalignment with their people which leads reduced organizational cohesion. This is especially true when leaders implement change. Many become driven to plan for change yet for every 100 hours they devote to it, only a fraction of that time for planning on how to get people “aligned” and, even less, on how to keep them aligned over time.

                               Chinese Whispers

From our research, flagging the challenge ahead and getting people used to a change is often done poorly or not at all. Most commonly, the effort and focus of what leaders expect falls victim to “Chinese Whispers” getting ahead of leaders change communication. Gossip and stories are passed around which with each re-telling change slightly, until what employees hear has changed beyond recognition. Consequently, those expected to implement change becomes a patchwork of the engaged, the bewildered and the belligerent.

We see this too often when leaders confuse their desired outcome; say profit, with their mission, say providing superior service. So, often in the urgency of change their “Why” gets forgotten or lost in a barrage of one-way communication. When people lose this connection with the “Why”, their “What” has little impact. In other words the lack of compelling messages means they don’t change and stick with what they have always done.

This condition manifests itself in many ways like having meetings where too many people are invited for fear they may feel left out.  Agenda’s become laden with information exchange leaving no time for problem solving or decision making because there’s no shared meaning.


Many leaders pull out their hair and say things such as the following:

  • Why don’t they get it!
  • How many times do we have to tell them that!

They are exhibiting the familiar signs of misalignment with their people. These data give an insight why they could be misinterpreted and mistrusted. Here’s a snapshot from our research in my book “Focusing Change To Win”:

  1. Leaders are not focused on coaching, metrics, leadership, communication process, or rewards/recognition (8.3% of 684 comments)
  2. Over half of the communication methods used are one-way (289 out of 510 comments)
  3. Leader’s intent does not seem to focus on the culture, roles, or governance. In fact, out of 755 comments, only 14 were about roles and responsibilities

Our analysis shows that the more change leadership stays in the hands of the Few, the more the Many will feel stressed, resistant, or, at best, confused.


Communication Iceberg

For many, this data is like an iceberg. The rational side of change is the 10% that leaders present and tend to focus on – Above The Waterline.

Meanwhile, Below The Waterline (90%), many are trying to relate the rationale for change with their own values, beliefs, needs, and past change experience. Such leadership communication patterns are not conducive to getting below the waterline and helping people reconcile organizational change with personal change. The result is often unnecessary stress, resistance, and confusion.

That leads us to advocate what our contributors are saying in laying the groundwork for successful change. The first criterion is developing a shared governing set of values and then getting people ready for the inevitable change ahead.

  1. Agreeing What Do We Stand For? What are our Change Communication Values

For many, people values are at the core of effective communication. Essentially, treat people as you want to be treated.

Here’s what people said in the survey about genuine involvement:

  • Transparency is key; otherwise, people will have reason to doubt and mistrust the initiative and therefore find ways and means to deliberately undermine the process.
  • Taking care of the human element and their attendant emotions.
  • Effective change needs:
    • Trust
    • A compelling logic
    • A close match of leaders’ actions and words
    • A commitment of those who are affected
    • Respect for people (even departing)
  • Build a culture in which change is for the larger benefit of the organization and not for an individual getting affected positively or negatively.
  1. Getting People Ready for Change

Here’s a sampling of how some leaders get their people change-ready:

  • Train in market and socioeconomic factors, then get [your people] involved in generating ideas to improve the situation.
  • Ensure all people understand the organization’s core values, purpose, and vision to guide us. Clarify strategic objectives and engage people in problem-solving.
  • Demonstrate how they build on the results they like and reverse-engineer the results they don’t.
  • Banish blame from the culture through leveraging high levels of transparent communication.
  • Listen to their ideas and seriously consider them.
  • Regularly meet to discuss vision and strategy, so people are familiar with the organization’s room for maneuvering.
  • Build esprit de corps by helping people to feel part of the whole process, and give recognition that change is largely in their hands.
  • Ensure they know their part in planning the next change.

Develop common spiritual and philosophical concepts underpinning the change cross-functionally to develop the engagement process that will be responsible for changing the work culture for good.

The next stage in getting ready for change is selecting and developing specific change roles.

  1. 36413851_mDeveloping Change Agents

While a few contributors cite using a proprietary change management model—like, Prosci, Adkar, and Kotter—a few cite introducing external change agents. Far more make reference to selecting internal change agents and engaging stakeholders to lead the charge. Additionally a few advocate setting up a central organizational development and design group.

  • We first advise staff of the changes that we [are] thinking of making and what, if any, input they would like to share that we might have missed or overlooked. Progress begins the idea of change for them, so when it happens, it’s not a surprise but already a realization in their minds.
  1. Involving Stakeholders Early

Some of the earliest activity for these contributors is the involvement of stakeholders and change agents. This starts with stakeholder analysis:

  • Assign ownership to each process, then document and communicate the changes to the stakeholders.
  • Identify and engage change agents up and down the chain to communicate and mentor people.
  • Establish the change organization, and communicate who is responsible for each activity.
  • Ensure that roles and responsibilities are rational.
  • Identify change agents and conduct pre- and post-meeting and interacting with stakeholders.
  • Introduce directly applicable tools, methods, and ideas.
  • The organization publishes policy and establishes governance for the elements of the change. These measures establish responsibility for the change but fall short of creating a sense of ownership.

For more advice on effectively communicating change, go to Focusing Change To Win – A Leadership Change Manual

Help with Aligning your People

For help and advice contact the Author Nick Anderson or call 1+ (616) 745-8667