I work with a lot of leaders in the midst of significant changes to their organizations. They tell me stories about the change processes that lead to positive transformations, and they tell me stories about changes that caused harm and distress. What I have discovered is that the success or failure of a change process is more about a leader's stance as they approach organizational change than it is about their particular skill set.
This stance is made up of four postures that, taken together, increase the likelihood that change will go well. There are, of course, no guarantees in situations that are inherently complex. But as many leaders have learned, more often than not, we have to work with improved probabilities, not certainties. Let's look at these four postures that position us best for organizational transformation.
The first posture in leading organizational change is change identification. Change identification makes sure we have the mental and organizational perspective to identify the type of change that is going on or needing to take place: is it primarily adaptive, or primarily technical? Adaptive changes deal with habits, mindsets, and behaviors, and require organizations and their leaders to learn something new to resolve the challenges at hand. Adaptive changes often have open-ended problem definitions and solutions. Technical changes, by contrast, require application of specific skills to bring a closed-ended issue to resolution. They often involve a mechanical repair, a software upgrade, or a program or event. These two different types of changes, and the mixture of the two, require strikingly different approaches in leadership and process.
The second posture in leading organizational change is change capacity. As successful leaders, we position ourselves to build change capacity into the organization. Building change capacity means that the organization's ability to manage and integrate changes increases and improves over time. Instead of just having the capacity to manage this current change, the organization is empowered to manage the change after that, and the one after that, and so on. Given the complexity facing most organizations, change capacity is essential to both long-term stability and overall return on investment.
The third posture in leading organizational change is to lean into the vulnerabilities of adaptive leadership. Adaptive leadership takes the protective and defensive behaviors we have acquired as leaders and sets them aside in favor of a new openness to experience and discovery. As leaders, we are primed to be in the know as much and as often as possible. Adaptive leadership, however, means leading into areas where we do not necessarily have core training or expertise, where we learn alongside others. When that happens, we realize we can't lead from what we know any longer. This requires us to be open to others in a way we may not have had to be in a while - and that can be both scary and fulfilling. In other words, we must build true humility into our leadership style if we hope to lead for the long term.
The fourth posture in leading organizational change is to engage in the orientations and practices of an adaptive leader. Ultimately, these boil down to listening, helping, and learning. Listening, because we actively engage to truly hear what is going on. Actively, we play back what we hear, making sure we understand another's perspective. We help, coming alongside rather than working from above, behind, or in front. We learn, since adaptive leadership requires that we discover what the problem really is before we try to discover what solutions might emerge.
These four postures help us have the stance we need to lead change in our organizations. This doesn't necessarily make leading change easy - adaptive changes are inherently complex - but this stance does make it more possible. What change are you leading (or preparing to lead) today?