In a previous article I suggested that the current demands on executive leadership have become so deep, broad, and complex that it is basically impossible for any one person to possess all of the competencies required of contemporary organizations and operating environments. As a result, I further suggested that we are probably better off focusing on a narrow set of competencies and traits that are essential to effective leadership. One of those—and possibly the most critical at this point—is change management. The reason for that is because contemporary environments are so dynamic that much of what a leader does on a day to day basis is to identify and manage initiatives, strategies, projects, etc. that all represent change of one kind or another. It is change management itself that ties most of a leader’s efforts together. This phenomenon has been in play for at least a few decades, but the rate of change and the volatility of change are qualitatively different and more challenging now than in the past. In effect, much of the change we deal with today is less incremental and more transformational, whether we want it to be or not! Additionally, technology is an accelerant of change and a disruptor of the status quo, often exacerbating what would already be a difficult management and leadership challenge.
So, what are the implications of this reality for leaders and what do you do about it?
First, both individuals and organizations are inherently stressed by change itself. In other words, just the presence of change elicits reflexive stress responses from people individually and from organizations collectively. Because of that reality, although we cannot control the macro-environment in which we work, it is important to limit the depth and breadth of change within our control that anyone or any organization must absorb at one time. This can be really challenging for leaders who possess a bias for action. We often evaluate ourselves based on how much activity we are driving, how many strategies are in play, etc. While understandable, a much more productive approach in the current environment is to very carefully and purposefully prioritize initiatives or strategies based on the relative return on investment (not just monetary) and/or criticality of each initiative. Because there is a limit to what people and organizations can effectively absorb relative to change, both leaders and their organizations are better off if they engage in fewer distinct initiatives at a time, but get more value (and successful change) out of the ones they choose.
Second, because of the first point above, it is critical to realize that the success of virtually any initiative or project is as dependent on the extent to which it is viewed as a change management challenge, as are the actual strategies and resources connected to the execution of the project itself. As such, leaders must build a change management plan into the process of executing on the initiative or project or strategy.
Lastly, we frequently talk about “change management” as this thing that happens rather than a thing we do. Leaders must approach change management itself as a formal process with best practice steps and components in the same way they would address conflict resolution or budgeting or strategic planning, etc. It is beyond the scope of this article to present an entire change management process, but you can see an example here. It is also important to fully understand the extent to which organizational change is transactional vs. transformational. Even transactional change such as implementing a new enterprise level technology application can be disruptive and stressful, but transformational change implies a fundamental evolution in the nature of the organization, which presents a different, culturally based change management effort.
In short, it is extremely unlikely that leaders can be effective today without understanding that change management is core to just about everything they do and that because of that reality, leaders must be as purposeful about managing change as they are about executing on any strategy, project or initiative deemed critical to organizational success.