5 Behaviours to Lead Successful Change

5 Behaviours to Lead Successful Change

Just how do leaders energise their people to embrace change?

The need for change is constant in a constantly changing business environment. Unfortunately, the failure rate of change projects has little changed in recent years, despite the increasing use of agile methods.

According to a 2012 McKinsey study, 17% of change projects conclude so disastrously that they threaten an organisation’s existence. In the case of large IT projects, McKinsey found that:

  • 45% of projects run over budget
  • 7% are delivered late
  • 56% fail to deliver what they promised

To discover why so many projects fail, we need to look no further than the Global Innovation Leadership Study conducted by Capgemini Consulting and the IESE Business School. It concludes that:

Large organizations create so much distance between the executives and those that are tasked to innovate, that a disconnect exists between them.

In other words, change leaders are failing to engage people in the change project. So, the question that needs answering is, what is it that change leaders can do to drive the engagement that is required to make a successful and consequential change?

In my experience in change management, critical change leadership behaviours fall into five distinct but interconnected areas, and, when executed effectively, dovetail seamlessly into the successful change management process.

1. Share a Compelling Story with a Clear Purpose to Create Urgency

John Kotter first uncovered the need to create a real purpose and a sense of urgency when making a change. Unless there is a desire to stretch to a change project’s objectives, those objectives won’t be achieved. The ultimate result of failure could be a failure of the company.

When igniting urgency, its need must be ‘real’. People have to feel the need, and buy into it. If not, they become complacent and the momentum for change subsides. One way in which poor leadership can kill change is by ‘meeting fatigue’.

Bain & Company found that time spent in meetings has increased every year since 2008. Worse, many of those meetings were conducted with no clear purpose. Higher up the organisational ladder, meeting fatigue worsens still more.

Senior execs spend an average of two days each week in meetings. Every minute is a minute during which these senior execs are unable to reinforce the need for change by their sponsorship and visibility.

Leaders can create a sense of urgency by creating a crisis. How do they do this? By being visible and having conversations with key stakeholders to explore questions such as:

  • What is our future if we do nothing?
  • What are the risks to the business if we don’t act?
  • What opportunities can we take advantage of by acting now?

By engaging stakeholders in this process, they become involved in the discovery of the need for change. This galvanises engagement in the need for change and in creating a roadmap for change.

The story becomes compelling because it describes the current state and potential futures – futures that matter to all stakeholders on a personal level.

This is the ideal time to challenge fears and apprehension of the ability to make transformational change. Leaders can do this by reminding individuals, teams, and the organisation of previous successes and the obstacles that were faced and overcome.

2. Paint a Picture of Opportunity

While it’s necessary to create urgency by creating a crisis if the leader paints a picture of doom they risk encouraging their most talented people to seek opportunity elsewhere. Good leaders will constantly assess their market and seek opportunity, and then communicate that opportunity to their people.

To do this, leaders must release themselves from the day-to-day duties of running a business and focus on the big picture and an external point of view.

Understanding what your customers desire is essential to visualising opportunity. For example, Henry Ford knew that what his customers wanted were faster cars. His business acumen created huge success, though that success almost destroyed Ford.

Complacency made Henry Ford to believe that his black Model T would always be the car most desired by motorists. This anchoring bias made Ford ignore the successes and innovations of competitors. Fortunately for Ford, the strategy was changed in time to avoid the ultimate failure.

Another company that fell into the trap of anchoring bias was Kodak. With total market dominance in the photographic products sector, it refused to believe that digital technology would be anything more than a fad. By the time it realised its strategic mistake, it was too late.

Successful change leaders externalise their perspective by starting with their customers. They plot a successful future by recognising opportunity, forecasting needs, and creating an understanding of how to develop sustainable relationships with their customers. Then they communicate this opportunity to their stakeholders, by painting a picture of a future with even greater success.

3. Discover What Isn’t Working

Leaders who spend time at the coalface instead of being stuck in the boardroom receive unique insight that can drive productivity. When leading GE, Jack Welch made sure that he spent time on the front line, with his troops, discovering what wasn’t working, and ensuring he got out into the field to uncover business needs.

4. Determine Why It Isn’t Working

It isn’t enough to know what isn’t working; it is imperative to understand the underlying cause. There is likely to be an emotional bias which could lead to the apportionment of blame, but this must be avoided. Objectivity is key when analysing for a cause. Peter Drucker suggests that leaders ask four questions:

  • Why didn’t this work, even though it looked so promising when we went into it five years ago?
  • Is it because we made a mistake?
  • Is it because we did the wrong things?
  • Or is it because the right things didn’t work?

5. Encourage a Participative and Collaborative Approach

Encourage people to participate in forward thinking and innovation, by developing a culture in which mistakes are not punished, but used as learning experiences. Taking risks is essential to evolving business models, products and services. Kodak wasn’t prepared to take a risk – and the aversion to risk ended up costing the company its customer base.

Of course, risk-taking must be measured and controlled. Companies like IBM manage risk-taking by setting up innovation laboratories. Others such as Porsche invest in specific innovation programmes.

In Porsche’s case, the risk is limited because it is run as an internship programme. Samsung has onboarded this strategy, too, with its Innovative Design Labs, though it goes one step further by sending people out to intern in other industries.

Collaboration then becomes an internal and external process, developing an intelligent attitude to risk and experimentation to better inform the future vision.


If you tell people what the future is, it is your vision. By inviting collaboration in the process of designing a new future, stakeholders help to create their future. They have a say in the strategic direction and become owners of the vision. This increases commitment and develops a collective goal that energises positive action.


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Daniel LockDaniel Lock helps organisations unlock value and productivity through process improvement, project & change management. Find out more about him at daniellock.com.

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Daniel Lock

Daniel Lock helps organisations unlock value and productivity through process improvement, project & change management. Find out more about him at daniellock.com.




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