Field Notes

How Can Leaders Enable Change? Organizational Transformation Provides a Path.

Written by 
Cynthia Oliver
February 2023

Leaders are tasked with carrying the weight of their organizations, while trying to initiate, or respond to, change at a rapid pace.

While leading change comes with the job of leading teams, it's often easier said than done. In reality, only around 30% of organizational change efforts are effective.

There are a number of reasons why these efforts fail. Organizational change is often complex. Even well-intentioned efforts to implement organizational change can be derailed by people’s tendency to resist change, and the unknown it brings with it.

The good news, however, is that enabling effective change is a skill that leaders can develop and strengthen over time.

Here are three considerations to explore when leading change at your organization.

Recognize the signals around you to surface what may have gone unnoticed

Before subscribing to a change effort, ask yourself: what signals are present in my environment and what could they be telling me?

Is your organizational performance declining? Are your clients and stakeholders vocally sharing their disappointment with your work? Is your organization experiencing high turnover, instability within leadership, and growing issues with management? Are processes and agreed-upon norms being ignored by team members who were previously engaged?

Perhaps, you’ve found yourself at a leadership table with the same people for years on end. And while this “stability” may look like a cause to celebrate, too much stagnation may mean that your organization is stuck in its own stubborn ways while the world around it is changing.

Not every signal is pointing to disaster or requires a large-scale change effort to reset—but being able to sense what’s going on in the present better primes you to be able to purposefully act when the time is right.

“Organizational change is often complex. Even well-intentioned efforts to implement organizational change can be derailed by people’s tendency to resist change, and the unknown it brings with it.”

Name what you’re sensing and communicate proactively

If you have identified issues through the signals you’ve been gathering, it’s important to get into the practice of naming the challenges you’re sensing to others.

Putting words to a feeling or scenarios is an anxiety-inducing task for many people. Words make things real.

For organizational leaders, naming issues is an exercise in professional vulnerability. But it’s important to remember that organization-wide bridges are formed when people recognize a shared problem. Communities are born when people use a shared language to describe the world around them—and name the challenges, and opportunities, that connect them.

Organizations are sustained by people who come together, not individuals who work amidst challenges in silence.

Rather than ignoring issues or putting a band-aid solution in place, naming challenges in a productive way creates momentum for the development of a change journey and is a necessary step in energizing teams to find the solutions required to jump over hurdles.

Once a change effort has begun, it is essential that leaders actively and consistently communicate with their people, from stating the vision for the change that is to come, to sharing progress updates and articulating challenges as they emerge.

Challenge expectations on what change can look and feel like

As a leader, it’s your responsibility to not only manage change but absorb change so your organization can be better because of it.

Organizational change is not linear. It is a chaotic process and it’s within the “mess in the middle” between realizing that change needs to happen, and the change actually taking place, that the real work gets done.

It is in “the mess in the middle” that difficult conversations happen, that deep learning happens, and that innovation happens. Through this chaos, that may feel unproductive and unstructured at first, that new opportunities emerge. It is within this in-transition state that attitudes and behaviours start to incrementally change.

And for leaders, the behavior change should start with them before they can emerge in their team. Leaders need to “walk the talk” and model the new behaviors that they want their organization to follow.

Kurt Lewin’s “unfreezing change theory” speaks to this process. To Lewin, in order to achieve a transformation from one shape to another, the shape must first be melted (the “unfreeze phase” that takes place when realization of a change needed), then poured into a new mold (the change, the mess in the middle) and then frozen again in the new shape (refreeze, the new beginning). Much of the change that takes place across these three phases is internal and invisible to the naked eyes.

Because change may not always look and feel tangible, it takes awareness and deliberate conscious effort to do the work, get messy, have the patience and grit to get to the other side.

“It is in ‘the mess in the middle’ that difficult conversations happen, that deep learning happens, that innovation happens. Through this chaos, that may feel unproductive and unstructured at first, that new beginnings emerge.”

Taking change to the next level: Organizational Transformation as a method for sustained, human-centered change

There’s an underlying theme that connect the considerations we explored above. 

Going through change at your organization is complex work because humans are complex—and ultimately, it is the people at your organization that stand as the backbone of any effective change effort.

Leaders don’t always need mechanical processes to manage change, they need human-centered ones to enable it.

And that’s where Organizational Transformation comes in.

Organizational transformation (OT) is a planned process that focuses on how individual and group behavior shapes organizational outcomes. OT draws from different fields including organizational development and psychology, coaching, behavioral science, neuroscience, group dynamics, systems theory, and management practice to drivechange in organizational systems.

In its use of organizational development practices, OT brings to the surface implicit behavioral patterns that are either helping or hindering development. Making these patterns explicit allows organizations to either reinforce the behaviors that help development or change those that hinder. When this happens, leaders and team members become active participants in enabling change. They get a stake in deciding how to conduct their work in line with organizational goals and needs.

“Leaders don’t always need mechanical processes to manage change, they need human-centered ones to enable it.”

Taking the first step: Building the capacity for human-centered change

Organizational change will always be difficult, but it doesn’t need to feel impossible.

Leaders, ask yourself: how can I support my organization and its people to make the most of change? How can I put people at the heart of change?

And just as importantly: what support do I need—and my organization needs—to be able to take that leap and get there?

Our Organizational Transformation team is ready to help you make sense of change and maximize it so you can advance your organization’s mission, vision, and goals.

Reach out to our team to support your next change effort.

Cynthia Oliver is an organization development practitioner and facilitator with a robust understanding of organizational psychology. Her key strengths include a unique empathic ability to connect with people, understand the power of the collective unconscious, and unearth covert processes and their effect on people and organizational health. Cynthia has done extensive work leading training sessions on organizational change, DEI, process consultation, and executive coaching. She holds a Master's in Organizational Psychology and Change Leadership from Columbia University.