Change Leadership for Complex Business Transformation

Published: Jan 24, 2019
Modified: Mar 24, 2020

By Amy Weeden

Times change, and we change with them. You don’t need to venture very far to realize that constant change is the new normal in business. For companies to thrive in today’s dynamic environment, they need to continually transform to meet customers’ ever-changing needs, create a competitive advantage and capitalize on strategic opportunities. Yet, even with such a clear mandate for change, it is commonly understood that two out of three major change initiatives fail. A strategic vision, while critical, is not enough. Leadership through business transformation is an essential skill that has the power to dictate whether change ultimately sinks or swims within an organization.

To drive change effectively, it is important to understand the distinction between Change Management and Change Leadership. Change Management is the sum of the tools and methodologies used to deliver incremental change to encourage user adoption, avoid disruption and curtail rebellion. While there is great thinking within change management theories, practical application too often becomes a neglected or under-resourced part of the effort.

Change Leadership is the fundamental driving force behind any major change initiative and is transformative rather than incremental. Change Leadership involves creating a vision for where you are going, ensuring the conditions for success and driving the team towards real business results.

Create a vision for the change. A strategic vision for change is more than a well-articulated objective statement or flawless communication document. A successful vision builds a compelling story about the new reality once the change has been achieved. Many successful leaders have created visions by making them personal, using anecdotes and other modes of storytelling to paint an inspired picture. What opportunities will you realize? How will you exceed customer expectations? How will you be better, faster, and smarter as an organization? It is important to make a clear connection between the initiative and measurable business objectives, but even more powerful when you use an “outside-in” perspective—what will your customers and stakeholders experience in the new reality?

Align senior leadership first. Before timelines, budgets, and resource plans are developed, it is essential that an organization’s senior leadership is on board with the proposed change and overall direction. While it is unrealistic that every detail will be resolved in advance, senior leadership should agree on where you are going and how you are going to get there. Key barriers to change should also be discussed—whether that be resources, organizational structure, or capabilities—and how you, as a team, will resolve them. Our experience shows that many projects waste valuable time, money, and team focus by not addressing these big picture issues up front. Stakeholder alignment is an activity best completed before the project plan is even developed. There is not one approach that fits all stakeholders when seeking buy-in. In some cases, a facilitation session works well, for others, individual conversations are more impactful. Once the big picture has been agreed to, it is also helpful to understand how key issues will be resolved as they arise. Who’s accountable for major decisions? Who needs to be consulted and who needs to be informed?

Build a team that can get stuff done. Now that you’ve built the framework, an engine is needed to power you to your destination. The most essential component of that engine is the people who will make the initiative a success. It is paramount to have someone at the helm with the skills, experience, and leadership necessary to be successful. Their achievements should be wholly dependent on the success of the initiative, not parsed between a mix of project and operational responsibilities. Once the driver is in place, be sure that you take a hard look at what other resources you need and staff accordingly. Many complex projects are doomed for not having the right resources on board from the onset. For many organizations, project staffing requires a mix of internal expertise and external horsepower. You need people who understand how your organization works and those who have external experience and an outside view to drive things forward. Now that you have your team in place, you need to empower them to get things done. Set the direction, but trust your team to figure out the tactics.

Keep momentum by creating a sense of urgency. Large-scale transformation requires consistent energy and enthusiasm. We have all seen major change initiatives that take the big bang approach—a lot of momentum at the start, but as things get challenging, enthusiasm and follow through wane, ultimately causing the program to fail. Momentum is sustained by frequently celebrating successes and if a long initiative, declaring victory on substantial milestones. Furthermore, as a leader, you must relentlessly pursue impact. Success is less about completing the project or a milestone, but achieving the business results of the change that you are embracing.

About the Author(s)

Amy Weeden is director of people and strategy at ACME Business Consulting. She has a consulting background in business transformation and is accountable for human capital, strategic planning and operations at ACME.