Many organizations dedicated to effecting changes that matter have been (or are in the process of) evaluating a range of responses to these unprecedented challenges. Some are evaluating shifts in how they pursue their mission (for example, changing their operational processes or governance models, partnering with other actors, etc.), while others are evaluating what they are doing and whether they need to alter their missions.
The one thing they all have in common is that they must implement changes (often significant) in order to continue to be relevant, to have an impact in the world, and in some cases, to even survive.
Realization of endeavors like these requires leaders who can navigate the treacherous waters inherent in executing complicated change. Learning to guide changes that matter is more than a good idea; the caliber of life—in fact, the very survival of our species—depends on these leaders becoming architects of successful transformation.
Risks to Changes That Matter
When working with leaders, their teams, and/or their boards, we address a number of change execution risks that threaten their organization’s success. These include:
Intent: Without a “cohesive narrative,” people’s grasp of the change will remain vague or diffused, and the execution of directives will be inconsistent at best. Therefore, senior leaders need to express the overall desired outcomes of the change in a way that is complete, concise, clear, and compelling. Creating a statement of intent together as a team also helps the C-suite to develop a deep and shared understanding of, commitment to, and alignment with the strategic intent of the change.
Synergy: At no time is “team” more important than when leaders take on dramatic change. The organization’s top executives need to be united in word and action; they must come together around a common set of objectives, recognizing the team’s interdependence in order to accomplish the desired outcomes. It is essential that they both trust one another and are willing to make personal sacrifices, if needed, for the sake of the greater good.
Resolve: Unwavering determination to accomplish the ultimate goals of a major change is evident when sponsors display actions and mindsets that signal that “failure is not an option.” They are deeply invested in fully realizing the intent of the change and do not shrink from making tough and sometimes unpopular decisions. Without sufficient resolve, leaders often find that politics, personalities, and priorities compete with and distract from the critical tasks at hand.
Sponsorship: Successful change hinges on the preparation and effectiveness of sponsors. A sponsor is a leader who legitimizes the change, and who has the authority to allocate the resources that are necessary to fully realize its outcomes. Without broad and deep sponsorship across an organization, gaps develop where the change initiative may be announced and even understood, but where there is insufficient commitment to fully accomplish the desired results.
Culture: When implementing strategic change, it is essential for leaders to assess whether altering the existing culture (mindsets and behaviors) is necessary to achieve full realization. The greater the difference between the current culture and that required to realize the promised benefits of the change, the higher the risk of failure. Without proper modifications to the culture or to the change itself, the intended outcomes are unlikely to materialize.
Capacity: Organizations—and the individuals in them—can only absorb a finite amount of change at any one time before dysfunction begins to surface. When the change demand exceeds the capacity to properly execute, people may go through the motions of changing, but they do not make the intended shift at a deep level and eventually fail to achieve the desired outcomes. It is the responsibility of senior executives to fully leverage the potential change capacity of their organizations without creating change overload.
Infrastructure: One of the most impressive achievements of many organizations pursuing changes that matter is their ability to put into place the enabling mechanisms needed to deliver their services and assistance under extremely challenging circumstances. And yet, many of these same organizations launch major internal transitions without the execution infrastructure necessary to achieve the intended outcomes of their critically important change initiatives. In its absence, important endeavors become diffused, deteriorate, and eventually derail before their aspirations can be realized.