Clearly, one of the biggest challenges facing organizations today is implementing change effectively. However, it’s widely accepted that only 30% of changes are successful. We know that change implementation is one of the most important roles of leadership, so the combination of these two points suggests that we should question what we’ve learned about leadership in wrestling with the challenges of change.
A widely accepted mindset is based on two assumptions: that behavior and changes in behavior can be planned and that processes can be consistent and controlled. These assumptions point to a leader-centric approach. But research on change failure shows that little emphasis is placed on the importance of the change leaders’ role, while a major cause of change failure can be attributed to the failure of leaders.
Perhaps this is because typical leadership development builds leaders’ capability to solve problems – not on their ability to deal with ambiguity, paradoxes, and dilemmas. Yet these are exactly the things that are central to the process of change.
I recently collaborated in an international research study to explore the question, “What makes change work?” Thirty leaders in 30 organizations were asked to tell their stories about both successful and unsuccessful changes. After analyzing 70 such stories, we identified four leadership behavior types, which we then related to the relative success of the change initiatives.
Results of our study revealed that the combination of these practices explained around 50% of the variance in change success. We also found that traditional leader-centric behaviors (problem-solving, etc.) were associated with failed change attempts. Therefore, we should be training leaders to practice all these behaviors to succeed in leading change.
Much of what we “know” about effective leadership could actually be inhibiting our ability to make change happen. If our study results are supported by others, we need to learn how to develop leaders who can make change happen effectively. Perhaps it’s time to forget what we think we know about leadership and explore its nature in a new way. Of the many leaders we can look to as good examples, Gandhi comes closest to expressing how we now need to think: The most powerful legacy in life is to enable others, to let them be the best they can be.
The overall conclusion may be, “To make change happen successfully, lead less and change more.”
This study was led by Malcolm Higgs, professor at University of Southampton School of Management and Transcend Consulting. To learn more about this research and guidance on developing effective practices, see Sustaining Change: Leadership that Works by Deborah Rowland and Malcolm Higgs (Jossey Bass, 2008).