Nine Tips for Leading Critical Change

Photo By: Md Khalid Rayhan Shawon is licensed under the CC BY-NC 4.0 license.

Nine Tips for Leading Critical Change

There are signature patterns that can undermine vital internal change efforts. Conner Advisory, a firm that advises organizations on pursuing changes that matter, recently conducted a Change Execution Clinic with InterAction Member CEOs.

Decades of experience have taught them mitigation strategies to set change back on its course.

The fundamental tip I gleaned from the clinic: The sponsors of change must create clarity on many levels. Specifically:

Make a clear case for change. It is often difficult for incumbents to see that the price for maintaining the status quo is prohibitively high. It is even harder to understand what parts need to be addressed. Therefore, clearly articulate the case for change. Presenting facts and data is necessary but it is not sufficient. To enact hard change, the case for change must resonate with people emotionally and intellectually.

The nature of this change must be clear. Ask yourself these three questions. 1) Is this an incremental or a transformational change? 2) Is success defined by going through the actions, or do we need to fully and sustainably achieve the desired outcomes? 3) Is this a good idea or a crucial imperative? Knowing these answers will help you gauge the difficulty of achieving the goals of the change.

Priorities must be clear. Absorbing change is like a sponge absorbing water—there is a point at which the sponge can no longer hold more liquid. When people exceed their change-absorption capacity, they start displaying dysfunctional behavior, such as ignoring or slow-walking the change directives but not fundamentally making the required adaptations—this is also true for organizations. Be attentive to your organization’s capacity to absorb change. Prioritize—with clarity—those initiatives that are crucial imperatives and deprioritize, scale back, slow down, or stop any initiatives that rob the organization of much-needed change capacity.

The consequences must be clear. Ensure that there are clear positive and negative consequences of supporting the required change. Without consequences, there is no mechanism for holding others accountable for the actions they must take and the results they must deliver.

The time to challenge and to comply must be clear. There is a time when leaders should welcome input and debate regarding an impending decision. However, once a decision is made, the sponsor and the leadership team must then engage the organization to build a shared understanding and commitment to the required shift, including holding each team member accountable for fully embracing the change.

Mission or me—which comes first—must be clear. It is human to back away from discomfort. Unconsciously, we often undermine what is needed, such as when a senior leader avoids having difficult, but necessary, conversations or making tough decisions. Sometimes people unconsciously opt-out of fully living up to what they were asked to do because the necessary action makes them uncomfortable. Leaders must become attentive to when they and their team members are putting their own needs, agendas, and comfort ahead of what the organization’s mission requires, and support awareness and skills to honor top priorities.

Be clear on roles. There are four key roles in the pursuit of any major organizational change: 1) Sponsor: the individual (or group) that has the power to legitimize the change; 2) Agent: the individual (or group) who facilitates the development and execution of the implementation plan; 3) Target: the individual (or group) who must actually change; and 4) Advocate: the individual (or group) who wants a change, but who does not have sufficient power to sanction it. Leaders must be attentive to what role they are playing at any given moment since they are often playing more than one!

Create clear connectivity between roles. People usually attend to immediate consequences over strategic rhetoric. When there is a distance between the person who sanctions the change and those charged with enacting it, execution becomes weak. This creates double-jeopardy of the change not happening and staff learning to not listen to leadership. To circumvent responsibility gaps, change sponsors must 1) Recruit other sponsors throughout the organization and 2) Enroll staff to pursue the change. First, uncover reluctance. Then enroll the team by head and heart in the change. Only then bestow the responsibility to carry out the change.

A clear shared goal and interdependence live at the heart of synergistic teamwork. Three conditions call for and encourage a team that is greater than the sum of its parts: 1) the change initiative is critical and the stakes are high; 2) diverse perspectives are required; and 3) the team must work interdependently to achieve their common goal—what Conner Advisory refers to as a “foxhole mentality.” Without this synergy level, leadership teams will more often than not fall short of seeing the full impact of the change efforts. In grasping these three circumstances, team members realize that they cannot afford to not work together. They may argue constructively until a decision is made. Once the decision is made, a synergistic team understands that accountability, or lack thereof, includes consequences.

Is the change you want to lead significant enough to invest time and thought in cultivating such clarity? Follow these tips when enacting critical changes. If you are an InterAction Member CEO and would like to be part of a no-fee change clinic with Conner Advisory to unstick a major change that matters, such as the inaugural session that inspired highlighting these tips, email Deborah Willig, InterAction’s NGO Futures Director.

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