LEADERS AND ORGANIZATIONAL CHANGE
"The future is a time of great entrepreneurial ferment, where old and staid institutions suddenly have to become very limber."
Peter F. Drucker
It should come as no surprise that we are in the midst of unprecedented change. As somewhat of a historian, having started out as a high school United States history teacher and having taught history classes for a number of colleges and universities, I am always in awe of the enormous changes that have taken place just in my lifetime alone. Time fascinates me, and I'm ever aware of the sweep of history that seems constantly to be accelerating.
In December 2003 we commemorated the 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. My father was born the month before that first flight. Both of his grandfathers had fought in the Civil War. Their grandfathers had fought in the American Revolution. Until near the dawn of the 20th century, things had changed rather slowly. Now, in the 21st-century, change is taking place at a dizzying pace, and it is extremely hard to foresee how things will change in the near future.
The technology that makes this course possible is a case in point. With the help of computers I find myself much more productive than ever before. In fact, I believe I am as capable and productive as four or five of me at age 30. You might think that would mean living a life of leisure with such power at my fingertips. Such is not the case. Technology and change has not freed us or reduced our stress.
As I'm sure is true for most of you, technology has not really simplified my life. Rather, my abilities and my time commitment have had to expand to keep pace. I am now not only more productive than ever before, but busier and coping with an even more stressful lifestyle. It seems that stress and change go together.
I read somewhere that we have 30% less free time than was the case in 1970. This feels true! I can remember in 1970 spending much more time with friends, having cookouts, going to plays, vacationing, and simply "kicking back and relaxing." Whatever happened to our free time?
So it seems that we are busier than ever and, in many cases, more stressed than ever. I see couples trying to have a successful relationship and raise a family while often being like two ships passing in the night, both so busy in their own careers that they have little time to make marriage and family work. In my psychological practice, I constantly see people suffering from severe anxiety and depression as a direct result of stressful and often brutalizing work experiences. I am often hearing people say that they can never catch up. Where did all this extra work come from? Where did our time go?
That raises interesting questions. What is progress? Are we making progress? What is the price we're paying? Is there a plan? Where are we going? Who has the answers?
This is why we value leaders -- if any are to be found. Leaders are supposed to know how to take us to a better place.
Leaders (and I'm assuming that many of you consider yourselves leaders) are the people who are supposed to have a sense of where we are going. They're the ones with a vision. They're the ones who are highly skilled at getting everyone else on board. They're the ones who are making sure that we are not only doing things right, but we are doing the right things.
"Life is a series of collisions with the future; it is not a sum of what we have been but what we yearn to be."
José Ortega y Gasset, Spanish philosopher
According to Harvard business school professor and change expert John Kotter, it requires a critical mass of the workforce (Kotter estimates approximately 25%) going "far beyond the call of duty" before there can be significant change in an organization.
Getting a critical mass of people to commit themselves wholeheartedly to a change process is what creates the momentum needed to launch and sustain change throughout the organization. People become committed when they understand why change is needed and when they feel a sense of urgency. People become committed when they "buy in" to the vision and accept it as their own.
This is what leadership is all about. Simply adding the title doesn't do it. Designated leaders crash and burn with great frequency. Leaders coasting on yesterday's successes often become derailed when they fail to adapt to changes in their environment. Having followers today does not guarantee having followers tomorrow.
It seems to me that being a leader is very much like being a winning basketball or football coach. You may have a number of great seasons behind you, but it only takes one losing season and you are out of a job and vilified by all who once hailed you as a hero.
"It's a terrible thing to look over your shoulder when you are trying to lead -- and find no one there."
Franklin Delano Roosevelt
Powerfully and effectively leading strategic change is a quality very much prized in today's organizations, and at the same time in very short supply. According to J. Stewart Black and Hal B. Gregersen in their book Leading Strategic Change; Breaking through the Brain Barrier:
"Perfecting this capability is probably one of the most profitable things you can do for your career and for your company. In our research, just over 80% of companies listed leading change as 1 of the top 5 core leadership competencies for the future. Perhaps more importantly, 85% felt that this competency was not as strong as was needed within their high-potential leaders. In a nutshell, when it comes to leading strategic change, demand is high (and growing) and supply is short."
So why such a shortage of capable leaders of change? One reason is that change has never been easy. Consider the following quote written 500 years ago by Nicolo Machiavelli:
"There is nothing more difficult to carry out, nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to handle than to initiate a new order of things. For the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders by all those who could profit by the new order. This lukewarmness arises from the incredulity of mankind who do not truly believe in anything new until they have had actual experience with it."
Black and Gregersen state that:
Humans are biologically hard-wired to resist change. Yes, that's right. We are programmed not to change. Although plants may evolve and survive through random variation and natural selection, people do not. We do not generate random variations in behavior and let nature take its course -- selecting and deselecting those who fit and do not fit the environment. We are wired to resist random change and, thereby, avoid random deselection. We are wired to survive, so we hang on to what has worked in the past."
70% organizations that seek strategic change fail. Black and Gregersen believe that organizations fail because individuals fail to change. They believe that individuals fail to change because of powerful and eduring mental maps that prevent them from seeing the need to change, from beginning to change even when it is obvious that change is vital, and from completing the change long after change has begun. This is where leaders are needed.
So, are you a leader?
Leaders are better than most at understanding change, accepting change, even appreciating change. Leaders are skillful at anticipating change and readily adapting to it. Leaders are proactive. They see change as an opportunity and as an ally, rather than a threat. Leaders create change, and most importantly, they envision and create positive change. While managers keep things going, leaders set the pace and direction for something new-- and leaders develop followers. Leaders help others overcome their resistance. Leaders get others to "buy in" to a vision and commit themselves and their energies to persevering in making their collective vision a reality.
So, once again -- are you a leader? Are you a leader of strategic change?
In the remainder of this lecture, I will amplify key ideas from your reading, as well as introduce some related concepts that I think you will find meaningful. I see my role in your class as not simply summarizing your reading, but expanding upon it by drawing upon 40 years of working with organizations.
I have been much influenced by the concept of "the Learning Organization" and the work of Peter Senge. Senge, as you are now aware, has written the highly influential book "The Fifth Discipline," a book I hope you will take time to read as I consider it essential reading for anyone receiving a graduate degree in business.
The five disciplines are:
I'll expand upon two disciplines, and also talk about John Kotter and leading organizational change.
I believe that systems thinking is a prerequisite leadership skill. Leaders have to be able to see the big picture, and see how the parts fit together and influence one another.
Often when there is a problem, managers shoot from the hip and order up more training. In many cases, it's not a training problem and a more detailed analysis of causes utilizing systems thinking and root cause analysis might lead to very different interventions. A couple of quotes:
Alice: Which way should I go?
Cat: That depends on where you are going.
Alice: I don't know where I'm going!
Cat: Then it doesn't matter which way you go!!
Lewis Carroll, 1872
Through The Looking-Glass
CEO Alice: What will we change in 2004?
Change Consultant Cat: That depends on your mission, your vision, your corporate values---your causal analysis.
CEO Alice: We're kind of fuzzy on those things. We've been working hard just to stay in business.
Change Consultant Cat: Then it doesn't matter what you change.
Bill Shearer, 2004
I think you get the point. Change really does require a systems perspective. I can't imagine meaningful change taking place any other way. Change is complex and leading strategic change is inextricably linked to systems thinking.
According to Peter Senge, mental models are:
"The images, assumptions, and stories which we carry in our minds of ourselves, other people, institutions, and every aspect of the world. Like a pane of glass framing and subtly distorting our vision, mental models determine what we see. Human beings cannot navigate through the complex environments of our world without cognitive 'mental maps'; and all of these mental maps, by definition, are flawed in some way."
Black and Gregorsen also talk about changing "mental maps" as being essential to implementing organizational change. The term is synonymous with "mental models."
We could not think without making use of mental models, yet those mental models can get us into trouble if we are unaware of the models guiding us, and unable to examine them objectively and discuss them with others.
Mental Models and Ladders of Inference
A topic very much related to mental models, and a very useful concept, is the idea of " Ladders of Inference." I will give you an example.
Suppose I am giving an important talk to my department. As I'm making a major point, I notice George sitting in the back of the room gazing out the window. I'm thinking "George isn't interested. He doesn't think that what I have to say is important." Without realizing it, I began ascending my ladder.
I ascend another rung as I tell myself that George wants to see me fail. He has a very negative attitude toward what I'm trying to accomplish. In fact, George doesn't like me.
I continue up my ladder as I tell myself that George is my enemy, and his friends are my enemies as well. I'm at the top of my ladder now and needing an extension ladder. Furthermore, I'm collecting data that reinforces my view of George.
Without realizing precisely how I got there, I will begin treating George differently, all the while continuing to collect data that support my perceptions and justify my actions. George will probably pick up on my attitude toward him and ascend his own ladder. Before you know it we're bitter enemies without knowing how we got there.
I recently worked with a federal agency where two key supervisors had not talked to each other in years. Neither knew how they got there. As you can imagine, the entire office was severely impacted.
Incidentally, this concept also has major application in marriages and personal relationships. It is absolutely essential that people in relationship, both workplace and personal relationships, be able to create an atmosphere of safety within which mental models can be made explicit, an atmosphere where assumptions are made visible and communicated, and where constructive dialogue can take place.
John Kotter and Leading Organizational Change
In Heart of Change Kotter states his premise that:
"The single most important message in this book is very simple. People Change what they do less because they are given an analysis that shifts their thinking than because they are shown a truth that influences their feelings. This is especially true in large-scale organizational Change, where you are dealing with new technologies, mergers and acquisitions, restructurings new strategies, cultural transformation, globalization, and e-business--whether in an entire organization, an office, a department, or a work group. In an age of turbulence, when you handle this reality well, you win. Handle it poorly, and it can drive you crazy, cost a great deal of money, and cause a lot of pain."
Kotter's Steps (from Heart of Change)
Step 1 -- Increase Urgency
Step 2 -- Build the Guiding Team
Step 3 -- Get the Vision Right
Step 4 -- Communicate for Buy-In
Step 5 -- Empower Action
Step 6 -- Create Short-Term Wins
Step 7 -- Don't Let Up
Step 8 -- Make Change Stick
I strongly recommend that you read Kotter's books, particularly The Heart of Change if you're wanting to create successful strategic change in your organization.
Impressive change doesn't just happen. Remember, most efforts at major organizational change fail. The difference is in leadership and in leaders who understand change and are systematic and systemic in their change efforts. One final quote:
Great minds have purpose, others have wishes.
© 2005 William Carey Shearer Ph.D., M.B.A., M.P.H