If you are managing change then perhaps the change needs to begin with you

Leading global expert on the management of change Deborah Rowland on the complexities of leading complex organisational change.

If you are managing change then perhaps the change needs to begin with you

WE all know – either through oft-quoted research or our own experience – how difficult it is to lead large complex change. Moreover, the nature of change is itself changing in these dynamic, unpredictable times. When I started in the field, change was an event, an episode, such as an organisational restructure, or a business acquisition.

Nowadays, I am asked to advise on an organisation’s capacity for ongoing change. The fashionable mot du jour is “agility”.

What’s more, change is no longer the activity you tackle after you have figured out your strategy. In the past, the “what” was determined first – which market segments do we go for, what product lines do we invest in? Once strategy was derived, we started on the “how”, what new capabilities do we need to execute our strategy, how to communicate and engage our workforce in our future direction?

The what and the how Today, it is increasingly hard to predict the future and set strategy. All we can do therefore is build the mind-sets and skills for ongoing innovation, such that when strategy becomes clear you can execute with speed. Any business leader today therefore needs to pay equal and parallel attention to the “what” (setting a dynamic strategy) and the “how” (leading a flourishing adaptive organisation).

I have spent three decades figuring out how to lead successful change – as a practitioner, researcher and advisor. On November 19 th (Cork) and 20 th (Dublin) I will be running half-day Masterclasses with the IMI sharing these insights.

Never confuse action with movement Our natural tendency is to seek new futures through old routines. We launch culture change programmes and process improvement initiatives, blind to the fact that we do so using old habits. We get very busy, moving nowhere. I see many efforts to increase “agility” characterised by centrally-led, overly-governed approaches, i.e., the very opposite of agility!

If you are managing change then perhaps the change needs to begin with you

How then can we change the source of our routines, such that true change emerges?

Being before doing. The starkest finding from my research into successful change leadership is that true movement starts by turning inward – attending to your quality of “being”, your presence. When you can tune into and regulate your inner mental and emotional response to experience, you can tune into and regulate the surrounding system. Easy to say, our ego makes it very hard to do!

When leading major change myself I had to learn not only the humility to switch judgements to curiosity, frustration to acceptance but also the wisdom to recognise my own feelings as symptoms of what was being felt in the wider organisation. I could then lead with greater systemic discernment – able to do the tough stuff.

Make disturbance your friend I define change as “the disturbance of repeating patterns”. This requires leaders to get into a good relationship with difficulty. My research showed that the ability to clearly name reality, to talk plainly about difficult truths, was the number one leadership practice related to success.

This requires getting comfortable with being in discomfort, as all big change comes with a price, not just a prize. Change requires breaking past loyalties to beliefs and practices that no longer serve, even saying farewell to colleagues. Great change leaders don’t duck the hard truth.

Now is the time for emergence Finally, I have learned that in today’s world heavily-engineered top-down approaches to change that assume a fixed destination simply do, not, work.

In their place, change efforts that hold a loose intention, set a few “hard rules” to govern decentralised action, start small in areas of greatest innovation need, and move in a step-by-step fashion (no fixed long term plans) are most related to change success in complex dynamic contexts.

This sounds easy, but such an emergent approach requires a radical new way of leading - one that gives up prediction and control and instead trusts in the messy unfolding nature of life, that is always seeking resolution.

These insights challenge the ways we have traditionally led businesses. But if it wasn’t challenging, we wouldn’t be changing.

Deborah Rowland is a leading change specialist and gave an IMI Masterclass in Cork today, November 19, in the UCC Centre for Executive Education on Lapps Quay. For more information, go to www.imi.ie/events

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