How to Become a Successful Change Leader

For this month’s Influential Voices Roundtable, the American Society for Quality (ASQ) asks: “In today’s current climate, transformation is a common term and transformative efforts are a regular occurrence. Although these efforts are common, according to Harvard Business Review two-thirds of large-scale transformation efforts fail. Research has proven that effective leadership is crucial for a change initiative to be successful.  How can an individual become a successful Change Leader?

Change is hard only because maintaining status quo is easy. Doing things even a little differently requires cognitive energy! Because most people are pretty busy, there has to be a clear payoff to invest that extra energy in changing, even if the change is simple.

Becoming a successful change leader means helping people find the reasons to invest that energy on their own. First, find the source of resistance (if there is one) and do what you can to remove it. Second, try co-creation instead of feedback to build solutions. Here’s what I mean.

Find Sources of Resistance

In 1983, information systems researcher M. Lynne Markus wanted to figure out why certain software implementations, “designed at great cost of time and money, are abandoned or excessively overhauled because they were unenthusiastically received by their intended users.” Nearly 40 years later, enterprises still occasionally run into the same issue, even though Software as a Service (SaaS) models can (to some extent) reduce this risk.

Before her research started, she found these themes associated with resistance (they will probably feel familiar to you even today):

By studying failed software implementations in finance, she uncovered three main sources for the resistance. So as a change leader, start out by figuring out if they resonate, and then apply one of the remedies on the right:

As you might imagine, this third category (the “political version of interaction theory”) is the most difficult to solve. If a new process or system threatens someone’s power or position, they are unlikely to admit it, it may be difficult to detect, and it will take some deep counseling to get to the root cause and solve it.

Co-Creation Over Feedback

Imagine this: a process in your organization is about to change, and someone comes to you with a step-by-step outline of the new proposed process. “I’d like to get your feedback on this,” he says.

That’s nice, right? Isn’t that exactly what’s needed to ensure smooth management of change? You’ll give your feedback, and then when it’s time to adopt the process, it will go great – right?

In short, NO.

For change to be smooth and effective, people have to feel like they’re part of the process of developing the solution. Although people might feel slightly more comfortable if they’re asked for their thoughts on a proposal, the resultant solution is not theirs — in fact, their feedback might not even be incorporated into it. There’s no “skin in the game.”

In contrast, think about a scenario where you get an email or an invitation to a meeting. “We need to create a new process to decide which of our leads we’ll follow up on, and evaluate whether we made the right decision. We’d like it to achieve [the following goals]. We have to deal with [X, Y and Z] boundary conditions, which we can’t change due to [some factors that are well articulated and understandable].”

You go to the meeting, and two hours later all the stakeholders in the room have co-created a solution. What’s going to happen when it’s time for that process to be implemented? That’s right — little or no resistance. Why would anyone resist a change that they thought up themselves?

Satisficing

Find the resistance, cast it out, and co-create solutions. But don’t forget the most important step: recognizing that perfection is not always perfect. (For quality professionals, this one can be kind of tough to accept at times.)

What this means is: in situations where change is needed, sometimes it’s better to adopt processes or practices that are easier or more accessible for the people who do them. Processes that are less efficient can sometimes be better than processes that are more efficient, if the difference has to do with ease of learning or ease of execution. Following these tips will help you help others take some of the pain out of change.


Markus, M. L. (1983). Power, politics, and MIS implementation.  Communications of the ACM, 26(6), 430-444. Available from http://130.18.86.27/faculty/warkentin/papers/Markus1983_CACM266_PowerPoliticsMIS.pdf

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