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How do Leaders create change that really works?


Guest articles > How do Leaders create change that really works?


by: Jim Rickard


"Progress is impossible without change; and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything."
George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950)

Let’s face it most of us hate change! We like it when we are comfortably ensconced within our safe domains and are content to maintain the status quo. This is the challenge that any leader faces who needs to create change within an organization; in order for it to survive and to thrive in today’s business environment. A quick internet search or reading the Wall Street Journal will give a listing of once vibrant businesses that were household names and have now been thrown onto the bone pile of dead or dying companies. Why did that happen? They failed to react to current market conditions quickly enough to capitalize on growth and market share and took a short term view of returns versus the long term view. Their leadership was either unconcerned about change, blind to the change in the market conditions or wrongly decided that their product was unassailable.

Apple’s, visionary leader Steve Jobs (1955-2011) was able to create change in his business environment that has transformed the way we work, think, problem solve and communicate in the world. The business culture of constantly learning and trying new things that Jobs created will help to carry new Apple inventions and innovations into the foreseeable future. Steve Jobs was and is universally recognized for his brilliance in successfully creating change within his organization and the world during his time. There was another giant in the world of change, not as well known to the general public, whose ideas and theories are still impacting the business world by the name of Kurt Lewin (1890-1947).

Kurt Lewin was born in a small village in Prussia that is now part of Poland and was one of four children. He served in the German army in WWI and was wounded in action; Lewin received his PhD in psychology while he was still serving in the military. His contributions in change theory, action research and action learning helped him to become known as the "father of organizational development". 1 Organizational development (OD) is a method of changing the culture within a business by focusing on ways to adapt and solve problems through encouraging openness in communication, fair treatment and respect for worker autonomy (Daft 2007). In order for this to be successful senior management must endorse the change action and support and enforce it at every level within the organization.

Lewin’s theory of change (unfreeze-change-refreeze) 2 is a three step model that helps consultants/leaders to implement culture changes within an organization. The idea is simple enough and whether we realize it or not we have all used it at some point. Think of trying to water a particular spot in your yard with a faulty water sprinkler, it does not water where you want it to, so you have to make a correction (unfreeze) then change the direction it faces (change), then secure it to water in the direction you want it to go (refreeze). This is the same idea involved in implementing change within an organization except now instead of an inanimate water sprinkler you are dealing with people with real thoughts, feelings and emotions. Depending upon the way they have learned of the approaching change (surprised or well informed) they may react with resistance or with anticipation.

"Successful change can only happen when employees are willing to devote the time and energy needed to reach new goals, as well as endure possible stress and hardship" 3 (Daft 2007).

When people are properly informed of change and most importantly when they learn, "how does this change affect me"? they are less likely to be resistant to the change if they have a full understanding of the change. They can then see the benefits for themselves, as well as for the organization. By being properly prepared for change and coming to accept the change, employees are in a position to actually commit to the change themselves on a personal level. At this point the change becomes a permanent part of the organizational culture and the change cycle can begin again if, and when, needed.

Perhaps you have heard the old saying "a clean broom sweeps clean". Some leaders operate under this principle and institute radical changes within an organization when they first arrive in a company; changing everything from top to bottom and sometimes this is necessary. These types of radical change will perhaps involve major restructuring of an organization by a corporate-turnaround specialist. Stephen F. Cooper is such a person who has been brought in to restructure differing companies like Enron, Laidlaw (Greyhound bus) and Krispy Kreme to name a few 4. Leaders sometimes operate under the principle of incremental change or the use of small changes over time. Toyota and Google are two companies that operate under continuous incremental change and they are constantly learning from their employees who manufacture and engineer their products 5.

Professor Richard Daft, of Vanderbilt University states that there are five elements involved in successful change and that if any of the elements are missing then the change will not be successful: 1) ideas, 2) need, 3) adoption, 4) implementation, 5) resources.

Without good ideas continually being generated from within an organization or company it will not survive in today’s highly competitive market. Unless there is a need for change within an organization then even good ideas will not be considered if there is no sense of urgency. Adoption takes place when the decision makers agree there is an urgent need to move ahead with the idea. Implementation follows adoption when the organization actually uses a new idea, technique or behavior. Without resources no idea will be able to make it through the selection process in any organization. (Daft 2007) Good change requires time and resources and does not happen in a vacuum. Change leaders are able to articulate a vision and create a sense of urgency and trust within an organization for proactive change before a crisis looms; with the change then being driven by reaction to market forces.

A wise man I know was fond of saying, "Things like this don’t just happen" and he was right. Wise planning, earning the trust of stakeholders and thoughtful considerations by leaders go into making sure that an organization is able to implement successful change within its system. Good planning and open lines of communication will help to increase the commitment of employees at the grass roots level who will help to ensure that actual change takes place. Leaders are unable to create change by themselves; without the commitment of employees who will actually implement the change within an organization, the process is unlikely to be successful. If you want to be a leader who can help to create change you first have to start with trust, integrity and open communication.




3. Daft, R (2007). Organization Theory and Design, ninth edition. Mason, OH. Thompson-Southwestern , p. 451


5. Daft, R (2007). Organization Theory and Design, ninth edition. Mason, OH. Thompson-Southwestern , p. 401


A former United States Marine, Jim Rickard has worked with a major international non-profit organization since 1983 and he has earned his BA in Criminal Justice Administration, Master of Public Administration and Master of Business Administration. Jim lives with his family in Brandon, MS and is currently pursuing his Doctor of Strategic Leadership degree with Regent University, Virginia Beach, Virginia.

Contributor: Jim Rickard

Published here on: 30-Oct-11

Classification: Leadership


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