Leading Change

By Brian Herman, Ph.D., CEO/President. Published on November 22, 2017.

Leading change in organizations is one of the most important competencies of leadership, but is often an activity filled with frustration and disappointment. The literature contains a plethora of advice on how to successfully manage change in organizations. However, it often fails for very specific reasons. At HSNA, not only have we led successful change in large organizations, but by providing an independent extra-organizational objective examination of the rationale for change, we can provide leadership with an important perspective of how prepared and receptive the organization is to the new vision, and help create buy-in and urgency amongst the organizations employees for the change.

There have been many failures of change management activities in companies. DaimlerChrysler and AOL–Time Warner mergers failed because the cultures of the two organizations were so different. Compaq, a computer company with a rapidly acquired market share, was eventually acquired by Hewlett Packard. Lessons learned from this situation included the inability of leadership to align their strategy with shifting market conditions. And in all examples of failed change management activities, lack of effective communication has been recognized as a substantive reason, independent of other issues.

Change management is about moving an organization from a current state to a future state that results in that organization becoming better at meeting their vision and mission in a more effective/efficient way. A number of highly regarded change management processes have been developed (Kotter, J., 1996 (1); Deming, .E.W., (2); Ferrazzi, K., 2014 (3); Lewin, K., 1947 (4); Bridges, W. (5); The Organizational Project Management Maturity Model (OPM) (6); The Psychology of Change (7); etc.).

Change management is about leadership (creating the case for change), organizational culture (why should we change), communication (articulating the need for change and creating buy in for the change from all individuals in the organization), and constantly monitoring the progress of change and iteratively adjusting course to reach the future state.

Historically, leadership at many organizations, whether corporate, nonprofit, or academic, has largely been self-oriented, individualistic, tactical, knowledge-centered, incremental and concerned with status/title and income (8). Successful change management leadership requires alignment with the organization, being a strong supporter of teamwork, strategic thinker, competence focused, innovative, and motivated by ethical fulfillment.

One of the most successful basketball coaches of all time, Dean Smith, encapsulated his personal views of what constitutes effective leaders (9). Most of these are strategies that he employed as a coach. Effective leaders possess the ability to create sound strategies for their teams of business. They understand and devote significant time to the recruitment of good people who wish to improve their personal skills and are strongly aligned with the company or team’s philosophy; this is called the “Hire Smart, Manage Easy” philosophy.

These leaders also understand that whether they like it or not, they lead by example. Since change is an ever present condition in business, effective leaders understand the importance of being light enough on their feet to adapt to changing conditions. And last, but certainly not least important, they are fastidious in honoring their commitments, admitting their mistakes and take responsibility for their failures (9).

Kotter recognized one of the most fundamental issues as to why change management fails- “People don’t change a minute before they’re ready” (1,3). Crisis is often a reason people have to embrace change, but they often do so reluctantly. Leading positive change in a crisis requires the ability to see beyond the “fire of the moment” and maintain the long-term view. Institutional culture is important- most organizational cultures are hierarchical, autonomous, competitive, individualistic, and expert centered (8). What is required is a collaborative, team-based, service-based, mutually accountable and customer centered culture, where all members of the organization are convinced of the need (value) of change and are excited partners in the process. One approach to this is to “decentralize” change, engaging all individuals in groups, with an individual from the group who joins others like them to aggregate all feedback from all of the groups in a cohesive way (3).

In academia, there are special issues that make change even more challenging. Deep change typically takes 10-15 years, while the reality is that high level administrators turn over every 5 to 7 years. Deep change therefore does not happen unless their successor carries forward the initiative; unfortunately, almost every new leader has their own vision and begins anew a strategic planning process to develop their roadmap for change.

The culture of higher education rewards individual accomplishment & reinforces such behavior. Competition to move their issue up in the pecking order can lead to paralysis, especially as leadership turns over and priorities change. Faculty and staff leaders tend to have narrow focus, and/or more often, faculty administrators, and staff are unaware of the initiatives even in their own areas. The good news is that there usually is an interest in change, but large numbers of stakeholders and multiple initiatives that are constantly being introduced can destroy capacity to implement meaningful change.

Communication with respect to all phases of change management is critical. It is important for all employees to understand the current state of the organization, the future vision of where the company wants to go and why this process will benefit them both from and individual and organizational perspective. Effective communicators excel at listening, delivering ideas, love interacting with people throughout the organization, are open and non defensive in their interactions with others, have a sense of humor, hone their presentations, and understand nonverbal behavior patterns of ourselves and others (9).

Lastly, one must constantly measure the change occurring, reevaluating progress and making necessary course corrections. Leaders need to agree on a small number of priorities that are aligned with institutional mission, regional needs and the collective shared interests of internal stakeholders and create synergy and partnerships with them. Change can be incremental or radical (7); incremental change is the easier to accomplish and keeps individuals engaged and excited. Remember it is vital to celebrate incremental wins along the way. A series of incremental changes when accumulated together can lead to a larger (more radical change), and can move the company to the new state that all have agreed is required. It is also important that change is recognized a process, not an absolute, and that if all individuals in a company are true partners in the change process, the outcome(s) will be successful and create added value at both the individual and organization level.

  1. Kotter, J. (1996). Leading Change. Boston, Ma: Harvard Business School Press.
  2. Deming, W. Edwards (1993). The New Economics for Industry, Government, and Education. Boston, Ma: MIT Press.
  3. Ferrazzi, K, (2014). Managing Change, One Day at a Time, Harvard Business Review, July-August issue.
  4. Lewin, Kurt. (1947). Frontiers in Group Dynamics: Concept, Method and Reality in Social Science; Social Equilibria and Social Change. Retrieved from http://hum.sagepub.com/content/1/1/5
  5. Bridges, W. (1991). Managing Transitions: Making the most of Change. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
  6. Managing Change in Organizations: A Practice Guide (2017) www.pmi.org/ChangeManagement.
  7. Seven Principles of the Psychology of Change (2017) https://www.prosci.com/change-management/thought-leadership-library/the-seven-principles-of-change-management
  8. Kirch, D. (2102). Transformation of Academic Medicine. Presentation to the combined meeting of the GREAT and GRAND AAMC group’s annual meeting.
  9. Smith, D., Bell, G., Kilgo, J., and Williams, R. (2004). The Carolina Way. Penguin Press.

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