by Maya Townsend

Becoming a Change Leader

May 08, 200715 mins
CareersIT Leadership

If you want to lead your organization to achieve its goals—and stand out from the pack when competing for jobs—you need to learn how to lead change effectively.

Today’s IT executives are at the forefront of change in their organizations. They implement new technologies, lead process improvement efforts, reduce business costs and enable innovation. All of these activities have significant change-management components to them. Yet only 7 percent of IT leaders are confident in their change-management skills, according to CIO‘s 2007 State of the CIO research. That stat is surprising given the transformational nature of work in IT management.

Dismal project success rates further prove that IT leaders may lack the change-management skills required in their roles. According to a 2004 survey conducted by the Standish Group, only 29 percent of projects are successful—that is, are completed on time, on budget and with the required specifications. Similarly disappointing news comes from The McKinsey Quarterly, which reported in June 2006 that only 38 percent of organizations believed their recent organizational transformation effort was more than somewhat successful.

It’s no wonder most organizational change efforts are dogged with so many challenges and that IT leaders are less than confident in their abilities. Changing work habits and getting workers to adopt new processes and technologies is one of the hardest things IT managers have to do. Nevertheless, leading change successfully is possible. If you want to lead your organization to achieve its goals—and stand out from the pack when competing for jobs—you need to learn how to lead change effectively. The success of your organization, and your career as an IT executive, depends on it.

The Change Success Factors

You may remember the pain curve model from project management class. The model suggests that people prefer to jump right in and get things done. They roll up their sleeves and enjoy the rush of satisfaction that accompanies early accomplishments. But then trouble begins. A key spec is left out that causes an entire rewrite of the scope document. A group of stakeholders becomes irate. Implementation team members battle over whose approach is best. Pain increases; effectiveness decreases.

The alternative is initially more difficult, but promises better results. It involves taking time up front to strategize, listen, build consensus and plan. This more methodical approach involves a different kind of pain—the kind that especially irks overachievers who like to see the outcome of their work immediately—but it leads to smoother, quicker and more effective implementations.

Successful change-management efforts hinge on four key factors: committed leadership (that means you), a compelling business case for change (which you probably have, but haven’t communicated clearly enough or often enough), embedding change into everyone’s work, and involving respected employees who can influence others. As you read this article, take a quick temperature check to see whether your current change initiative is well-baked by answering the questions below about each factor. Your responses will help you gauge progress toward making your initiative a win and show you where you’re falling short. Master these success factors and you’ll be well on your way to becoming a master of change.

Factor #1: Active, Committed Leadership

Because employees naturally look to their leaders for direction and listen to what they say, they’re sensitive to their superiors’ unspoken and understated messages. For example, if you show up for a meeting and don’t seem engaged, your team will sense your apathy. If you don’t show enthusiasm for a strategy or project, the team members won’t either. They’ll look at their own long to-do lists and put the project in the low priority bucket. Can you blame them? If you don’t commit, why should they?

There are lots of reasons why you might half-heartedly commit to a plan. More than half of IT executives polled by CIO in 2007 reported being “challenged by an overwhelming backlog of requests and projects” and bemoan the “shortage of time for strategic thinking and planning.” So when the heat is on, leaders often choose priorities based on which customer yells the loudest or which project catches the CEO’s attention.

The first imperative, then, is to prioritize your change effort. Take the time to look at upcoming initiatives and evaluate their importance against the mission and strategies of the organization. If the initiative under consideration is truly important to the success of the organization, to the leadership team and to you, then make the commitment. (To read more about managing multiple projects, see “Managing Competing IT Priorities”.)

Just like any obligation, tying your knot to a change effort can bring moments of frustration and regret. That’s why strategizing and planning up front is critical. That way, when you face one of those inevitable moments of dismay, you’ll be firm enough in your resolve to find a way through the challenges and continue to lead the change.

How active and committed are you to your next change initiative?

1. You initiated or endorsed the change. Yes No
2. You truly believe that the change will bring significant benefits to the organization. Yes No
3. You’re prepared to kick off the project in person. Yes No
4. You’re committed to seeing the project through to completion. Yes No

If you answered yes to all four questions, you’ve met several criteria for success. If you answered no to any question, it’s time to do some deep thinking about whether you’re the right person to lead this change—or whether it’s even the right move for your company. Save yourself and your organization turmoil by working out these important questions before launching the project.

Factor #2: A Clear, Compelling Business Case for Change

Here’s a hypothetical question: Which of the following would better motivate you to rearrange your entire schedule for the day? (A) Your boss says, “Our most important client is coming in from France and we need you at the meeting,” or (B) your boss says, “We need you to look into software as a service; it may help improve our bottom line.” You’re probably drawn to A. It’s clear, precise, significant and immediate.

Too often, leaders introduce the rationale for their change efforts in murky terms like, “It will help improve our bottom line” and then expect employees to jump to action. Why should they? They don’t understand exactly what the project is, how it will help or how it will affect their work.

Workers are more likely to change when the business case is obvious, specific and urgent. You and your implementation team must be able to consistently and compellingly communicate the rationale behind the initiative and the consequences of not changing. Here’s an example of a compelling business case:

If the company doesn’t upgrade to the new system, it won’t be able to process more than 5,000 new customers. And if the company can’t keep growing its customer base, we won’t be able to keep our doors open.

That’s pretty clear: Corporate growth is at stake, and the consequences of not changing will hit the wallets of employees. Business cases like this one get attention.

Not all changes provide such an easily apparent business case. To identify your business case, start by rooting through superficial reasons to get to the real substance of the change. For example, a superficial reason for upgrading to a new system might be because the company has a relationship with the vendor or because “the competition is doing it.” Delving deeper leads you to more meaningful motivations, such as the upgrade leading to customer service improvements that run circles around the competitors’ customer service efforts.

Once you’ve identified the business case, the next step is to anticipate how the change will affect individuals in the organization. Perhaps the change will mean more paperwork, better project execution or fewer irate customers. Helping employees understand these impacts aids them in preparing for change. It also helps you understand how hard you’ll need to work and how visible you’ll need to be during the process. For example, if a project will cause significant workflow disruptions or will be perceived as busywork, you’ll need to spend more time talking about the business case with employees and setting expectations.

How well have you created the case for change?

1. The change is a critical component of the organization’s strategy. Yes No
2. The benefits of the change will outweigh the time and labor involved in making it happen. Yes No
3. The case for change is truly compelling and necessary to the organization’s continued evolution and success. Yes No
4. You and your change implementation team can clearly articulate the reason for change. Yes No
5. You can explain the impacts of the change at the department level. Yes No

If you answered yes to all five questions, you’re on the right track. If you answered no to questions 1 or 2, you and your colleagues need to have a serious discussion about whether the time, effort, disruption and cost of change are worth the effort. If you answered no to questions 3, 4 or 5, you need more clarity on the case for change.

Factor #3: Focus on Embedded Change, Not Programmatic Change

Everyone has a story about a flavor-of-the-month management fad that was abandoned before completion. Going through fire drills for projects that only seem predicated on some business trend the CEO read in an airline magazine is frustrating and draining for employees. Unfortunately, employees have enough negative experiences with aborted initiatives to be cautious when leaders hype a new change.

To avoid the flavor-of-the-month syndrome, your crystal-clear message has to underlie all communications, and you have to work to embed the change into the fabric of the organization.

One way to embed change is by creating goals that are linked to the success of your initiative. Start by making sure that the change supports one of the company’s strategic imperatives. (If it doesn’t, go back and confirm priorities and commitment with the executive team before your launch.) Next, identify high-level goals for each business unit supporting the change. From there, continue setting goals until every affected division and department has at least one strategic goal associated with the initiative.

The final step is to embed the initiative in individual employees’ work by setting performance goals tied to the initiative. Establish clear objectives on performance reviews that explain what employees need to do to help their departments achieve success. For example, as part of a continuous improvement strategy, employees may work to “integrate the new CMM processes and procedures into all project work by the end of the year” or participate in the billing redesign working group as a department subject matter expert.”

Once you’ve established individual, departmental and divisional goals, don’t forget about them. Too often, goals become part of a musty document that only gets dusted off at the end of Q4. Best-practice companies report regularly (monthly or quarterly) on progress. Critical milestones can be celebrated in order to sustain momentum and enthusiasm during long-term initiatives.

How well have you embedded your change initiative into your organization?

1. Your change is integrated into the work of the organization. Yes No

2. You’ve created clear, measurable change goals that are:

   reported on frequently

   meaningful to employees

   representative of progress toward the desired end state and results

   tied to group and individual performance

   directly linked to the initiative

Yes No

If you answered yes to all questions, you’re ahead of the change-management curve and you’re setting up your organization for success. If you answered no to any of the above questions, it’s time to revisit your communication and change plans.

Factor #4: Employee Participation

Remember when you first learned to ride a two-wheeled bike? It took some work to find your balance. You wiped out a few times and scraped some knees. But you did it: You figured out how to steer, brake and fly like the wind down a hill. When you did, you felt exhilarated, proud of yourself and pleased with your accomplishment.

Now compare that experience with how change often works in organizations. Boss A says to Employee B, “Here’s the new process. Now go do it.” Employee B is then expected to implement. It’s a one-sided conversation that takes ownership away from the people who have to make the change happen. There’s little opportunity for Employee B to experience the satisfaction of learning as you did when riding your bike: They don’t get to experiment (What if I give it a running start? Maybe I’ll fall down less frequently.), refine a process (This works better if I don’t brake suddenly.) or experience the thrill of accomplishment (Wow! I figured out how to turn!).

To make your change effective, leverage the basics of human behavior. People enjoy being part of changes that they create. Most of us like to give advice and make decisions. And science reinforces these concepts (see “The New Science of Change” for details). Use your employees’ innate desires to shape change, give advice and make decisions by engaging staff in planning and implementation.

There are many ways to engage staff in change, and every situation will require a different combination of methods. Make sure to use multiple mechanisms since each will provide different opportunities for involvement and different kinds of feedback. Here are six suggestions you can implement immediately:

  • Carefully consider the composition of your change implementation team. This group will become your primary implementers. They’ll be out front in the organization talking with their peers about the change. Because of this, you should load your team with people who are respected by their peers. Look for the informal leaders in the organization—the ones whom employees naturally seek out for advice, information or support.

  • Create an advisory group consisting of influencers in the organization. These employees aren’t right for the implementation team because they don’t have the right skills or because they’re already over-allocated. But they’re also ones whom their peers follow and respect. Get the advisory group together to give advice on specific decisions about implementation and approach. You’ll benefit from receiving input on key decisions and you’ll gain the support of the company’s informal leaders.

    The caveat with creating an advisory group, of course, is that you have to listen and respond to it. Ignoring advice will do more damage than if you hadn’t asked for it in the first place. One way to set yourself up for success with the advisory group is to set expectations early on. For example, you may commit to the advisory group that you’ll give immediate feedback to its ideas in one of three ways: (1) I agree, we’ll do it; (2) I need more information in order to make a decision on this. Let me get back to you once we have that information; or (3) That suggestion is helpful, but we can’t implement it and here’s why.

  • Institutionalize periodic, anonymous change surveys. You can use surveys to help gauge how well employees are adopting new behaviors, applying new procedures, integrating change into their daily work or progressing over time. You’ll also get hard numbers that show where your initiative is succeeding and where it’s falling short.

    Crafting survey questions that tease out the information you really need takes time and thought. The best way to proceed is to engage a subject matter expert. You can usually find survey expertise in your company’s HR department.

  • Conduct periodic pulse groups. Pull employees together in small, cross-functional groups to discuss successes and challenges associated with the corporate initiative. This gives you access to the buzz surrounding your project as well as information you can use to help prioritize next steps. An added benefit is that pulse groups help break down organizational silos by bringing together staff that normally wouldn’t interact.

    Before you start your groups, however, think about whether you’ll need a facilitator. You’ll want one if you suspect that people will be reluctant to speak openly, if you’ll have difficulty drawing them out, or if you simply want to listen rather than manage a discussion.

  • Ask managers to hold periodic feedback sessions. In these sessions, managers bring their direct reports together for frank discussions about what’s working and what isn’t relative to the change. After giving employees a chance to vent, managers refocus them on problem solving by asking for suggestions on ways to make the change more effective.

    Follow up the feedback sessions with a manager meeting in which they identify the themes they heard from employees and give their own feedback. Use these ideas to revise your change plan and tweak your implementation activities.

  • Create a process improvement structure if your change initiative is particularly complex. Good structures prevent ideas from falling through the cracks or being adopted haphazardly. An improvement process might look like this: (1) Employee sends the idea to the review group. (2) The review group conducts an impact analysis of the idea and decides whether to implement it. (3) The review group communicates its decision to the employee. For change management “extra credit,” publicize adopted ideas to show how you are listening to employees and adapting the initiative to their feedback.

How well have you engaged the organization in the change effort?

1. You have developed several ways for employees to participate in planning and shaping the change. Yes No
2. You have multiple mechanisms for gathering perspectives from the workforce on the success and challenges associated with the change. Yes No
3. You have several channels for eliciting and implementing improvement suggestions from the workforce. Yes No

Did you answer yes to all three questions? If so, good work. You’re engaging the organization in a way that will help make your change a positive one. If you answered no to any of the three questions, take some time to think about what mechanisms will work best in your organization. After all, engaging employees now is much easier (and more pleasant) than forcing them to change later on.

Now that you’ve reviewed the four success factors, you should have a sense of what areas need work. With a little focus and effort in these areas, you too can become a change leader.

Maya Townsend, founder and principal consultant of Partnering Resources (, builds aligned, focused organizations that execute their goals more effectively.