Leading Change in 3-D



If you are getting the idea that successfully leading change is no simple task, you are on the right track. Leading change is more like 3-D Chess and nothing like 2-D Checkers. So, let’s talk about those three dimensions today.


I would name those three dimensions of leading change this way:

  1. The Strategic Challenge

  2. The Human Challenge

  3. The Ownership Challenge


In my last post, I wrote about the “human challenge” under the title, the Price Tag of Change. The relational and emotional fallout unleashed by the destabilizing impact of change, creates deep loss for people. That loss triggers legitimate grief and grief often comes out sideways.

To go deeper into the human challenge of change, the best book I know is William Bridges’ Managing Transitions. Bridges explores the dynamics in play during the time between the launch of change and settling in to a new normal. It’s this period of transition that he calls the “Neutral Zone” where some of the heaviest lifting is required.


But, change demands much more than caring for people. Successful organizational change calls for serious leadership horsepower on a strategic level. However, how many of us were trained with a proven process for the strategic demands of change?

Into this void, I would like to toss John Kotter’s research based work on leading change. I know of no one who has done a better job of identifying the essential components of an effective change process. He has even identified the sequence of leadership assignments in an eight step strategy.


If you’ve never read Leading Change or its companion The Heart of Change there is no substitute. But let me list his eight steps and underscore them with comments from his books. (Note: Kotter refined his terms in the second book, I’ve taken the liberty to blend the two versions.)

  1. Establish a Sense of Urgency By far, the biggest mistake people make when trying to lead change is to plunge ahead without establishing a high sense of urgency in the organization.

  2. Build a Guiding Coalition Trying to lead change without a credible and high-capacity team behind it is like trying to pull a semi-trailer up a hill with a lawn mower.

  3. Get the Vision Right It is uncanny to consider how many leaders try to cast vision for a change without building urgency or a guiding coalition… or even worse, they leap past this step entirely and jump right into an implementation plan.

  4. Communicate for Buy-In It is common for leaders to under-communicate the vision by a factor of 10 (or 100 or even 1000.) Communication comes in both words and deeds—the latter being the most powerful.

  5. Empower Action New initiatives fail often because people feel disempowered by obstacles in their paths. Wise leaders confront and clear out those obstacles so that people are empowered to take action.

  6. Create Short Term Wins Most people won’t go on the long march unless they see compelling evidence within six to eighteen months that they journey is producing expected results.

  7. Don’t Let Up Celebrating wins is different than declaring success. Your greatest risks at this moment are letting urgency sag or mistake momentum for victory.

  8. Make it Stick - Anchor Changes into New Culture Change sticks only when it becomes “the way we do things around here.” That is to say, when it becomes the new normal of your organizational culture. Don’t be surprised that latent resistance makes a “Custer’s last stand” at this point.

A while back, I created a workshop that has been fun to lead. I called it, “How to Lead Change without Blowing Up Your Church.” While I love that title as well as the interactions of that workshop, I actually can’t promise things won’t blow up. No one can. But I will tell you that working the sequence and substance of Kotter’s strategy while attending to the human challenges of the journey will give you the greatest potential to maximize success and minimize trauma.

In my next post, I will tackle the third dimension of this 3-D chess game: The Ownership Challenge. (As time goes on, I will revisit further insights about applying Kotter’s model.)

Right now, I recommend you do some reflection on these 8 steps of change.

  • Which of the 8 comes most naturally for you?

  • Which ones are you most likely to forget or short-change?

  • Which step is actually hard for you?


How does all this sit with you? What does it stir up? Add your comments below.

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© 2020 by Gary Mayes