Change Management: The important leadership role

Research tells us that Change Managers and Project Managers have limited influence when it comes to changing organisational behaviours. Leadership demonstrated by the formal leaders within the organisation is the critical element for any change initiative to succeed. Here are some tips for leaders of organisations in need of change.

After the shift of the century, as the frequency and pace of change has increased, Organisational Change Management has become an important topic. We have seen a new profession evolve with certified change managers as a key component. This development has contributed to the success of change initiatives and given positive contributions to capturing the benefits of change. 

However, this development has its limitations, since change management to a large extent has been left with these professionals, who do not have the same influence as the formal leaders in the line organisation. A quantum leap in change performance should be expected by the time change management is being adopted as an integral part of the leadership practises carried out by the formal leaders of the organisation. 

What is the core of Change Management?

At a macro level change management is mainly related to one important element. It is all about to what extent the initiated change is being adopted by the impacted organisation.  Adoption is closely connected to change of mindsets and behaviours. 

Most changes requires a new way of working.This is demanding and it will important to:

  1. Create awareness of the need for change (legitimate)
  2. Create desire to participate in the change (communicate the "what's in it for me"))
  3. Build the knowledge and skills required to manage the change (what it takes)
  4. Ensure ability to bring new skills and knowledge to use and remove barriers ( build deployment capability)
  5. Reinforce the change through directed communication and adapted structures (ensure consistency and embedding the change)

What is the challenge?

Many years of research has documented that most change projects don't deliver on their ambitions and targets. Most of these initiatives deliver on proven solutions or technologies, but these are not brought to use in an optimal way. 70 -80% of all these initiatives belong to the category "non successful projects" and this share has been constant over time. The most important reason for this failure is documented to be lack of leadership, also known as sponsorship of the change.  Leadership is too often absent at many levels of the organisation. Many of us have experienced IT projects aiming at delivering new systems and more efficient ways of working. These projects, without the required leadership support, too often end up delivering a system without the expected changes to the way of working. The outcome is limited value to the organisation and in many cases the opposite, increased cost and lower productivity.

Who influences mindset and behaviour change?

Research shows that a change manager or a project manager has very limited influence on mindsets and behaviours in any organisation. 

When it comes to creating awareness of the need for change, top management is always the ones that have the strongest influence. When it comes to mindset and behaviour change, the closest superior has the strongest impact

How can we then expect that delegation of these tasks to change managers or project managers can give the expected results? If we want to succeed with change we need to create awareness for the need to change, desire to participate in the change and build the knowledge, skills and ability required to change. These are all prerequisites for adoption of the change by the organisation, in sequential order, and these can only be met if active sponsorship is provided by all leaders at all levels of the organisation. The roles might vary across organisational levels, but are all equally important.

What are the key leadership tasks in a change process?

Leadership applied in the organisation is decisive to the success of the change initiative and is crucial during all the stages of change from initiation to benefit capture. What are the key tasks linked to leadership and sponsorship in change? 

  1. Analyse, document and legitimate the drivers for the change (diagnostic)
  2. Anchor the need for change among the key stakeholders - What happens if we don't do anything?
  3. Create and communicate the attractive future state for the organisation and its individuals - What will be better when the change is successfully implemented?
  4. Seek support from the ones influencing the change the strongest and identify yourself with the ones being most strongly impacted. 
  5. Build a strong guiding coalition of leaders and influencers 
  6. Organise the work and ensure sufficient resourcing - Give and visualise priority
  7. Create expectations to leadership in change to all organisational levels - Follow up and visualise good leadership behaviours 
  8. Measure the change readiness and risks, analyse barriers and risks and minimise these through corrective actions 
  9. Establish qualitative targets (new behaviours) and quantitative targets (results) for the change and ensure that performance indicators are in place - Integrate the change in day to day monitoring of business performance 
  10. Identify resistance to change, understand its root causes and work actively to remove these

How do you appear as a leader in change?

What you should think about being a leader in change:

  1. Participate actively in the change and be visible throughout the entire process
  2. Dare to be personal - Tell your own change story  and talk about why  this change is important to you and ask other leaders to do the same
  3. Communicate strong interdependencies between yourself and the ones surrounding you and your expectations to both yourself and the organisation 
  4. Be a frontrunner and a role model through what you are doing  and demonstrate the new practises yourself 
  5. Be available and prioritise time for open, direct and face to face communication 
  6. Give precise and constructive feedback - What is good and why? What needs improvement and why? 
  7. Ask questions to understand and ensure that your team members find their solutions
  8. Scout for talent, challenge your people to take on new challenges and autonomy to act and deploy
  9. Find your own balance between being humble in front of the challenge and firm towards the ambition
  10. Live in accordance with your conviction and your values and always keep your promises. Be the leader you wish you had. 

About the author 

Jan Sverre Amundsen (b.1955) has for decades held leading positions in Change Management and Project Management within multinational companies and industries in Norway, Scandinavia, Europe and South America.