Change leadership: Top 5 capabilities to successfully deliver change management

Successful change starts at the top.

In this note top ranked leadership capabilities that correlate with successful change implementation are identified. Two perspectives are examined: first, which are the top ranked capabilities and second, when these are present, how organizations tend to apply them that enables success.

Activities are not ranked individually although there is surely some relative priority of establishing and maintaining them at particular times depending on the stage of the implementation.

Regarding the terms used and sources drawn on to identify the top strategies,
please see the notes at the bottom (*, **).

In cases of successful change implementation all of the elements described below tend to be observed.

C-suite alignment:

Without question, sponsorship strategies always rank at the top of successful change implementation strategies – and remain a dominant factor throughout the life of a successful change or transformation. It seems pretty clear that if no one champions a cause, it would have very little chance of succeeding.

What isn’t always clear is what about sponsorship strategies needs to work properly?

The input from our survey group shows across the board – (F10, private, government, start-up, family-run, not-for-profit, private-public-partnerships large NGO’s) – almost any organizing entity, that sponsorship alignment strategies tend to consist of the 2 following characteristics: first, a clear line of accountability for the change and second an adoption mind-set.

There are a lot of contributing factors that we don’t mention here – for instance that sponsors must actually be the organization’s leaders – not consultants or other delegates of authority. Also, in particular for longer transformations there is clear succession plan for sponsors as changes to key roles are inevitable.

But when sponsorship strategies are aligned, there are clear lines of accountability for the change. Aligned sponsorship accountabilities tend to enable optimal decision-making processes. They articulate the accompanying behaviors to deal with the inevitable conflicts that arise and must be resolved throughout the implementation effort. Finally, change leadership and change sponsorship are distinct and clearly defined (leadership delivers the change, sponsorship is accountable for the change – including holding leaders accountable for delivery).

The second element is an adoption mind-set. This translates into maintaining an RoI (return on investment) focus for the change that measures benefit yield beyond installation.

The downside when either or both of these elements are missing is reflected in significantly reduced or negative RoI on spend, longer implementation times, significant re-work, and/or an excessively high-conflict or high ambiguity implementation environment.

Case for Change:

The case for change is a term in the implementation vocabulary that can have widely different interpretations. A more utilitarian orientation would boil this term down to the ‘business case’ for the change – in other words, it’s costs and benefits.

On one hand, it goes without saying that the rationale around the business elements of a change need to fit together – and have a positive RoI (return on investment). But what tends to occur when organizations do this work more strategically is that the intention behind the change – it’s purpose, it’s impact, the inherent conflicts and second-best choices that go into the change – are explored, evaluated and shared. It becomes a process of on-boarding key stakeholders into the effort. The on-boarding creates momentum – precisely because the case for change is vetted.

This makes it much more a leadership activity. If this isn’t clear, ask yourself what the difference is between a change where there is a clear sense of urgency and another change which requires actions today but will only realize an opportunity at least 2 years out. It is quite a different task to convince people to galvanize and prioritize actions in the second case than the first – although quite possibly, both changes are equally required – or could deliver equal values at the end of a hypothetical 2-year horizon.

Take solutions for climate change as an example. The case for change to address these issues is much more difficult to align around – and is a major reason why globally aligned implementation climate change solutions remain fragmented today. It’s very difficult to galvanize actions – globally – around a case for change in which the implementation effort involves planting 5 billion trees today – which is one of many urgent actions we could take – when their combined carbon conversion impact will not be realized before 30 years. And at the same time, the RoI is clearly there.

At the other end of the project size/complexity implementation continuum, for example is the case for change for start-ups. When the case for change is clearly articulated, “smart money” tends to get involved. Their involvement tends to signal that the special sauce – not just the business case – required to drive high value creation is there. The case for change here is more compelling in comparison to the one for climate change – precisely because it has much more immediacy, urgency and near-term potential for realized return.

In successful implementation having a more strategic orientation to the case for change – as a process more than a deliverable – can engender more effectively the required engagement and energy for the change at the beginning – and continue to include managing the inevitable valleys that accompany any large change or transformation effort throughout – right through to adoption or realization. This is what differentiates the activity as a leadership capability vs any other activity.

Adoption or realization focus:

A major reason why we continually hear people citing high failure rates in change boils down to having an installation vs adoption or realization approach. Is a change successful if it has delivered an IT (information systems) platform and software installation on time and under budget, but no one uses the system, or uses the system to the extent intended?

An adoption or realization focus is a leadership activity because it ensures organization members actually get the intended change – sufficient use of the intended installed “thing”. This is particularly helpful in agile environments where the focus on delivering “minimum viable conditions” does not turn into the unhelpful mantra of just enough is good enough. Just enough needs to include some viable uptake of the thing being developed.

In more traditional “waterfall” (or phase contiguous) large scale change and transformation environments, adoption focus enables real value to result from longer time scale implementations by keeping a focus on metrics such as applicability of the component deliverables and user-adoption rates. An adoption focus will also tend to include checking for adoption metrics and outcomes earlier in the change so that adoption requirements remain front and center as the effort progresses. And, critically, relating to leadership, its viability can only be realized when it is demonstrated through top-down role-modeling.

Managing implementation change risks:

There is a lot more that is known about implementation today than 50 years ago. But there are also challenges of implementing large scale change that have not changed that much in that time period. One such aspect is the people element of any change.

While research points to the fact that it is consistently cited as one of the root causes of implementation failures, people risks (resistance to the change, or when managed successfully, ownership and support for the change) can also be clear enablers to change implementation. Clearly different people go through change in different ways – in the types of roles they occupy in the organization; at different rates of buy-in; with different intentions and motivations and so on. Clearly also, they bear the different (direct and indirect) costs and benefits of the change. Often people external to the organization are also impacted, and they also have an influence and impact on the success of the implementation effort.

But finding ways to determine the most appropriate level of engagement of an organization’s people is a key leadership activity and key contributing factor to successful change implementation. Understanding which actions provide the organization with the optimum level of engagement to deliver the change requires understanding people risks – which groups of stakeholders are key to successful implementation of the change and how to ensure that they are engaged in the way that realizes most effectively the intended transformation.

Change leadership bench strength:

If you haven’t noticed already, change leadership is no longer the domain of the c-suite. Although it remains a thorny challenge there, which is why you see so many different ways to think about and inculcate change leadership in organizations today, change leadership skills need to progress beyond senior management.

An essential starting point for identifying and applying this capability boils down to adopting a fit-for-purpose approach – in other words, a ‘good enough’ link between the change and the required leadership capability to implement the change. When this conversation is alive in organizations, it is at the root of successfully implementing leadership capability efforts, in particular in changes with high people-related change risks.

What is this essential difference? One way to think about it is to situate change leadership on a continuum between utilitarian and strategic solutions. For instance, a more utilitarian orientation to change leadership might view a low level of engagement score on an organization change in a more narrow lens – and tend to want to focus on addressing the perceived “low score”. A more strategic orientation might also see the urge to address the score – but might further be interested in the cause of the low score, which might lead to deeper insights on the score’s meaning – and possibly different interventions.

Engaging the organization in a more strategic application of change leadership means making room to enable questions about how the organization is implementing the change given the results it is achieving – at various stages and across different operating levels of the organization. Is it efficient and effective? In change and transformation this distinction is at the core of design thinking of the change leadership function and its potential value in addressing people-related change risks more successfully. It’s not about everyone, everywhere, all the time. It’s more about what results are enabled by more strategic engagement of key leaders in key roles.

Outcomes, implications for action:

The 5 areas outlined here are most often cited as consistent with successful transformation leadership capability. In cases of successful change implementation all the capabilities tend to be observed. The more the capabilities are aligned, the more they have the potential to re-enforce each other and create synergies or reduce unnecessary dysfunction.

Although it cannot be said that all of these strategies definitively – i.e. 100% of the time – contribute to successful change implementation, the likelihood of more successful outcomes is increased when they are present.



* Top capabilities in this note is defined as the critical actions or processes that are considered essential or core to the successful uptake of the change at the receiving end. In other words, the resources used to deliver the change, and it’s intended use, are realized as intended. The ‘change’ in this case refers to large scale implementations where the people component (mindsets, attitudes and behaviors) is predominant.

** This note draws on on-going research and implementation activities with senior change consultants, c-suite leaders and other experts implementing large scale change in major organizations across different sectors ((governmental, private sector (private and publicly capitalized companies), NGO (non-governmental organizations), not-for-profit, family-run), across major industries, at global and regional levels.

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