4 New Rules for Leading Change

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If only 30% of corporate change efforts succeed, then it’s time to upend outdated change management techniques that are still oft practiced today. Many of these models gained mass popularity in the 1990s. Think back to life in the 1990s for a moment. The World Wide Web just debuted and everyone dreaded Y2K. When driving in unfamiliar territory, we popped in our favorite CD and wrestled poster-size maps against the steering wheel. 

Today change is so fast and interconnected, that most corporations are not dealing with one big change at a time, but perhaps 10, 20, 30, or more simultaneously. The complexity and non-linearity of change today require us to deal with ambiguity, expect the unpredictable, and consider complex interconnections that may not be immediately obvious. Likewise, we have to approach managing change in a non-linear, multi-dimensional way. 

Here are four new rules for leading change that can add dimension to your change management program and a story of how I saw each play out recently.

1. Bottom-up influence can be more effective than top-down

2. Change is influenced, not controlled (1)

3. Small actions have big impacts, and big actions have small impacts (1)

4. The grapevine is your friend

One of the first things you read in traditional change management books is how top leaders must drive change. While that remains worthwhile, it is equally important to allow space for employees to drive change. Paradoxically, you may find employees steering leaders in the right direction.

I recently witnessed this in a Silicon Valley workplace transformation initiative. The company was shifting to a more open work environment and reducing the number of private offices. Instead of closing an office door to have a conversation, employees would pick up their laptop and grab a small collaboration room.

The Workplace team had already determined the target percentage for office allocation based on their research and benchmarking. But when it was time for the leaders to make seating assignments, one of the SVPs still insisted on a number of private offices that exceeded the target by 2%.

Now, it’s important to look at the situation more broadly. This particular department was experiencing what we change management consultants call a “high change load.” They just lost their EVP and had been through a layoff. So I suggested the project team let them try the higher office allocation. If after the 90-day transition period, it wasn’t working, it could easily be converted given the flexible room design. My theory was that if it worked, great—it was only 2%, still lower than the previous number of offices—and if it didn’t, then the group would want the change instead of being mandated to change. So that’s what the team did.

However, we didn’t predict what followed. Up to this point, as part of the change management program, we involved about 30 designated employees in what we dubbed an “Engagement Team.” They participated in monthly workshops during which they learned about the new workplace design; repeatedly heard the “why” messaging; could ask questions; challenge our thinking; and give certain design feedback. When the employees from that SVP’s department found out their leaders decided on 2% higher office allocation, they were incensed. They knew it wouldn't work because the offices were designed to be the exact same size as the collaboration rooms and there was a limited number of those rooms. In other words, more private offices meant fewer collaboration rooms. They met with their leaders to express their concern, and soon after, the SVP contacted the space planner to reallocate offices according to the recommended guideline.

Obviously, this is a great example of bottom-up influence being more effective than top-down. Because we engaged influential members of the workforce, they ultimately drove the change in spite of what their leader initially directed. That doesn’t mean we ignored top-down change leadership. Indeed, I could give examples of how that played out as well. But we facilitated space for change leadership to emerge in employees--and certainly the leaders deserve credit for giving and respecting that space. As we hear more talk of holacracy and leaderless organizations, it’s not unreasonable to conceive how top-down change leadership models could become a thing of the past. Look at the recent rise of leaderless movements, such as the Arab Spring and Occupy Wall Street.

The story also reinforces how change cannot be controlled, only influenced. While it may have been easier to mandate the office allocation—in an attempt to control outcomes—it would have made people angry. The more we would have pressed, the more they would have pressed back. Instead, we allowed for flexibility, and what happened? Unpredictably, we got what we wanted.

We also saw how small actions had a big impact. This particular company was in the middle of a divestiture, so we could not launch a bombastic communication campaign about how fantastic the new workplace would be. Half of the campus would be going to the other company and certainly wouldn’t appreciate hearing about an amazing new workspace that they wouldn’t be getting. Instead we took a subtle and targeted approach meeting monthly with the thirty-member Employee Engagement Team mentioned earlier. Small actions have a big impact. This flies in the face of the more traditional way of approaching change with big campaigns and pomp and circumstance. Anyone who worked through the 1990s and early 2000s is familiar with the cynical phrase, "Flavor of the Month"—big actions actually had a small impact.  

Sure, we created a few videos of executives talking about the new workspace, but we also put the tools in place to encourage conversations. We relied on the grapevine instead of trying to fight it. In fact, we needed the grapevine: we didn't have an army of change management consultants micromanaging these 30 people to see if they were actually communicating to the remaining 600 employees. Instead, one month before the move, we ran a survey to ensure the larger employee base was aware. The results showed that 84% of employees had been informed and knew why the new workspace strategy was so important.

In theoretical speak, this is complex adaptive systems (2) at work. We no longer live in a mechanistic world where cause and effect are linear and predictable. We can’t unfreeze-change-refreeze (3): there are too many variables at play. In this new paradigm we need change leadership practices that embrace the complexity and unpredictability we deal with on a daily basis. We need to create space for conversation, leadership from the ground up, and allow things to unfold on their own in certain cases. Discerning when it’s best and how to do this requires savvy thinking—it requires us to think differently about leading and managing change.

How have you seen change leadership play out in ways contrary to the traditional mantra? How have you upended the rules in change management practices lately?


1) Fitzgerald, C.  (2002). On seeing the forest while among the trees: Integrating business strategy models and concepts into executive coaching practice. In Fitzgerald, C. & Berger, J. G. (Eds.), Executive coaching: Practices & perspectives. Mountain View, CA: Davies-Black Publishing.

2) Waldrop, M.M (1992). Complexity: The emerging science at the edge of order and chaos. New York: Simon & Schuster, Inc.

3) Kurt Lewin (1947) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kurt_Lewin