The What, How, And Now Of Effectively Leading Change

“Loss is nothing but change and change is nature’s delight.” – Marcus Aurelius.

No matter where you look today, it seems as though once mighty organizations are tumbling down on a routine basis.  Think Compaq, Circuit City, Borders, Blockbuster, and more.  No industry is immune.  Be it automakers, microchip producers, ride-sharing providers, or leading retailers, organizations are failing at an accelerated rate.

So what’s behind this relentless pattern of disruption and destruction?


These companies are failing to adapt quickly enough to an ever-changing operating environment characterized by unprecedented levels of Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity, and Ambiguity (or VUCA, for short).

VUCA is an acronym developed by the U.S. Army after the collapse of the Soviet Union to describe an increasingly dynamic, interrelated, and multipolar world.  Volatility reflects the ever-increasing level of change and subsequent turbulence caused by the speed at which change occurs.  Uncertainty refers to the decreased levels of predictability individuals and organizations now face when making decisions.  Complexity speaks to the growing interdependencies of systems – be it in managing supply chains or as seen in globally connected economies and societies.  And then there is Ambiguity, reflecting a world awash in options and potential outcomes, making the implications of our choices and consequences of our actions all the less clear.

Most leaders today understand the importance of organizational flexibility, as well as effectively managing change.  As a result, they assemble teams with the skill to run parts of a change program and develop a process to organize the effort.

And yet the VUCA environment in which we operate often creates blind spots that can undermine our best efforts and intentions.  So much so, in fact, that data from leading researchers confirm 90% of large change and innovation efforts fail to deliver desired results on time and on budget. Change, as it turns out, is harder than ever to successfully pull off.

Effective leaders, however, anticipate and mitigate these blind spots.  They do so by ensuring they accurately and adequately address the fundamental “what, how and now” of leading change, and then get busy moving out to meet the evolving demands of their industry.  Specifically, they make it a priority to clearly address, answer, and articulate the following critical questions:

  • What do we want to achieve? (And why is this important?)
  • How will we get there? (And how can we best support our team?)
  • What must we do Now? (And what might get in the way?)

Of course, asking questions without providing answers won’t get anyone very far.  Here are five proven practices to set you on the path to success:

Pursue A Common Understanding

The key to unlocking high performance is to remember that disciplined thought facilitates intentional action.  Taking the time to assess where you are (your organizational “As Is” state) and where you want to end up (your “To Be”) generates a powerful, shared understanding that forms the foundation of your collective change journey.  Some call this vision casting.  I consider it creating a coherent frame of reference that informs everyone of why you are doing what you are doing.

As my former boss and now Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine General Joseph P.  Dunford Jr., likes to say – “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.”  Wise words that remind us, establishing a clear and compelling case for change is the catalyst that propels people out of their comfort zones and into a journey of discovery and possibility.

Create The Space For Success

Effective leaders recognize how an organization’s capacity to manage change can be easily overwhelmed. What might seem to be a logical sequence of well-intentioned change initiatives to the leader, can feel very different to someone on the front line, being asked to engage with several new efforts at once while also being expected to carry out business-as-usual.

Like a sponge soaking up water, individuals can absorb only so much and no more.  Adding new expectations without reducing or eliminating existing workload is a recipe for failure.

One way to prevent this is to identify the people most affected by a change and chronicle what the organization has asked them to do in recent months outside of their normal duties.  By mapping these activities, you can anticipate in advance when people will get stretched too thin and then work to create the required space, eliminating lower priority requirements or delaying the desired effort at hand.

Communication Early And Often

One of the single greatest reasons so many efforts fall short is the failure to create a shared language for change.  By language, I mean establishing a well-defined set of priorities and shared measures of success.  Taking the time to implicitly communicate how you intend to forge forward aids in squeezing out volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity.

It also enables you to focus your energy and attention on a relatively small number of performance measures (my rule of thumb is no more than 4-6) which, in turn, serve as the proverbial “mile markers” needed to coherently guide you from your current reality to your desired future objective.

Steward Smartly

If we are honest with ourselves, it’s very likely we’ve experienced one or more change or development efforts that wasted resources and needlessly squandered human talent and effort.  If implicit communication is the fuel which keeps your organization moving toward its objective, transparency and accountability is the currency that buys you the confidence to know you are taking the most judicious and responsible path forward – for your people, your customers, your constituents, etc.

Hence, stewarding smartly means you never stop questioning what you are doing, how you are doing it and if you could be doing it better , smarter, cheaper, or faster.  Inquire insistently and communicate frequently.  Keep your team from guessing what is most important.

Selflessly Celebrate Success / Swiftly Acknowledge Setbacks

Positive progress in any endeavor stems from seeing failure for what it is – an opportunity to learn and begin again, only better.  Since Peter Senge wrote his groundbreaking book ‘The Fifth Discipline,’ the value of being a learning organization has been well established.

The ability to create dynamic feedback loops to encourage people to leverage real-time wins and, more importantly, courageously share setbacks, is the secret sauce of high performing organizations.  The challenge, however, is actually delivering on this desire.

The most effective change leaders recognize the importance of creating an environment that routinely rewards those who are responsible for success.

I’m not talking big dollar bonuses here.  I’m suggesting (and research confirms) genuine recognition by someone in a position of influence, often in front of peers.

At the same time, making it a corporate priority to make pain points a valuable commodity and success a generously celebrated reality separates the good from the great – the mediocre from the extraordinary.

500 years ago, Niccolò Machiavelli famously wrote, “… it ought to be remembered that there is nothing more difficult to handle, more doubtful of success and more dangerous to implement than to take the lead in the introduction of a
new order of things.

Change was hard then, and still is today – the only difference being that today, the level of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity has increased dramatically.  But you need not fret.

Make it a priority to address the What, How, and Now of change and you are well on your way to not merely surviving, but thriving through change.