Leading the change charge

Large-scale organisational change is disruptive but an often necessary and sometimes critical step to take. Once decided on, leadership is vital both to overcome opposition and to avoid a situation going from bad to worse. Business leadership generally involves managing constant improvement of a generally satisfactory situation. But leadership of large-scale change is different.

by Harvard Business School Working Knowledge, 6 February 2006
Last Updated: 23 Jul 2013

Organisations and people become entrenched in certain patterns of behaviour. Often the more successful a company is, the more this will be the case. But unchanging methods of work and organisation mean that, over time as the business environment changes, firms will inevitably lose effectiveness.

The natural reaction to that growing gap is often to simply work harder at those things that brought success in the past. But if this doesn't work, morale will start to suffer. In such circumstances, limited reforms can also be dangerous: if they do not create self-sustaining change, disillusioned managers will start looking around for new jobs.

This is where leaders need to step forward. They need to ensure that rather than just waiting for the storm to blow over, the company is picked up and moved forward.

Top management needs to convince those further down the hierarchy that large-scale change will make a difference to the company's prospects. The linkage needs to be very explicit - people need to know what success looks like - to help overcome resistance to the changes.

The change programme also needs to be comprehensive and bold; significant enough to stop managers relapsing into their old ways. Top management must be consistent in their message that change is necessary to meet the observable needs of the company; they must also be relentless and unwavering. 

Like climbing a mountain, it is argued that one way of making a programme of change more manageable is to create 'base camps' - temporary pauses to allow individuals to adjust to new ways of doing things and, importantly, to allow for route changes that become clear only when the next camp is reached.

Training should also be action-oriented - focused on building new plans and processes that can be executed quickly - rather than general or abstract.

Source: Leading large-scale change
Jonathan Byrnes, MIT senior lecturer and president of consulting firm Jonathan Byrnes & Co

Review by Steve Lodge  

Harvard Business School Working Knowledge, 6 February 2006 recommends

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