Improving Organizational Flexibility by Developing Change Leadership Capabilities


Change is not what it used to be. The only certainty we have about tomorrow is that it will certainly be different from today. That's one reason the ability to manage change effectively has become so critical for organizations to survive. While the good news is that there are many concepts available to help companies improve their competitive strength, the bad news is that most companies fail as soon as they enter the implementation phase. The question is, why is lasting change so difficult?

Most change projects put a lot of energy and money into assessing the opportunities, developing a strategy, analyzing the situation and communicating the business case for change. Those projects that survive this "thinking" phase continue by launching pilots. A small team, sponsored by the leadership team and supported by external or internal consultants, develops a blueprint solution for the rest of the business. But presenting the ideal process is most often the last sign of life. Moving from a pilot phase to full implementation either never happens or takes so long that by the end the external conditions have changed so much that the results are disappointing. What remains are puzzled executives jumping for the next magic formula–and the story begins again.

Some Common Beliefs About Change

A common misunderstanding about change efforts is that there is one big fix, a quantum leap forward that will let you "freeze" afterward and then rest for a few years. Unfortunately, this is only an illusion. What most leaders find is that as soon as they launch one effort, the marketplace forces them to change in other areas as well. Change becomes like a never ending marathon race.

Another misconception is that if ideas work well on paper everyone in the organization will quickly buy-in. So a lot of good thinking and energy goes into developing a strategy and designing the effort. After this phase, people assume that the implementation will soon follow. But in reality, real change works exactly the opposite way: The most difficult part is the implementation.

These false assumptions have triggered a move toward change in perspective. In the past, the focus was on process and technology, not people. Now, most leaders realize that the most important element of every change effort is to change the way people do business: change their behavior. For business to change, people must change. Unfortunately, this is also the most difficult part of every change effort.

A Brief History of Change Management

Our understanding of change management has changed significantly over the last few decades. The first generation of change management began rather mechanistically. Once an organization's leadership realized the need for change, they developed a strategy and ordered people to change. Internal or external experts told line management what to do. This approach did not work too well, and even when things changed the results could not be sustained.

The second generation recognized the need to involve the workforce. Most of these programs comprised broad, corporate-wide training and education initiatives. Employees were taught leadership's strategy and given a set of tools to use. The underlying assumption was that changing people's attitudes would modify people's behavior, which would inevitably lead to some results.

This approach was very popular in the early days of Total Quality Management. Sponsorship of these efforts came from the corporate level, and effectiveness was measured by the number of training days per employee. However, many companies began to realize that teaching alone did not change behaviors. What seemed absolutely logical and rational in the training session was not always applicable in the real world. Often, the training did not help to improve bottom line results. Employees developed expectations but were frustrated when they could not apply their new knowledge and skills immediately. At best these programs were irrelevant, at worst they promoted cynical behavior and inoculated organizations against change.

The third generation of change management emphasized ideas that employees implemented themselves such as breakthrough improvement projects. This practical approach focused on solving concrete and specific business problems through teams, aiming for breakthrough results. Training was aimed specifically at those involved in the pilot projects. These projects were usually quite successful, at least during the pilot phase. However a narrow focus, such as on one particular piece of equipment, and the difficulty in involving the entire organization due to lack of resources, made it very difficult to roll out the projects successfully.

Change Leadership - Addressing the Roll-Out Problem

Change efforts succeed when all phases are managed successfully: Design, Training, Pilot and Roll-Out. The focus should be as concrete as possible, concentrating on real business problems instead of abstract concepts like culture. Yet it is also critical to involve the entire organization in order to realize the effort's full potential.

Rath & Strong's Change Leadership Program addresses these issues, particularly the roll-out problem, assuming that the business has already clarified its strategic objectives and identified the opportunities for change. This first step can be reached using tools like Rath & Strong's Change Management ArchitectureSM.

Key elements of the Change Leadership concept are:
  • Focus on measurable results that can be sustained and replicated
  • Develop internal talent that can manage and lead change
  • Provide a toolbox that can be applied to a variety of problems and situations

Focusing On Results

Early attempts at Quality circles failed not because of a bad concept, overly complicated tools and techniques, or poor ideas, but because people were not held responsible for solving the problems they identified.

Measurable results are absolutely critical for any successful change project, especially in organizations that are already known for never reaching the implementation phase. Without results, it is extremely difficult to obtain buy-in from employees and management. Even more important, these results must be sustained and replicable. Success attracts people, and learning new behaviors is most likely learned from a successful model.

Participants in the Change Leadership Program choose in advance a change project they will lead after finishing the program. The participants' success will depend largely on whether they are able to achieve measurable results that are sustained.

Developing Internal Talent

Most companies know more about managing change in their specific corporate culture than they realize. Many have tried to incorporate Just-in-Time/ Toyota Production System and Total Quality principles or to reengineer their business processes. Few have used these experiences to learn what approach works best for them. And although the technical elements are quite different, the basic elements of every new management concept are surprisingly common. These principles can be applied to implement nearly every new idea. The cultural elements have a much greater impact than the technical elements of a specific solution. Using these experiences when implementing a new program or concept can be extremely valuable, as the principles the organization applies to avoid change are very often stable. Applying these concrete experiences from recent change efforts can help avoid organizational pitfalls and common mistakes.

The Change Leadership Program builds on an organization's past experiences, distilling the "living case studies". Identifying those projects that have been extraordinarily successful, and using the experience of project managers to transfer skills to potential change leaders, allows one to utilize the experience as a real learning tool. This way, a company can train its potential change leaders by using real life case studies from its own organization, including particular issues like politics, networks, leadership styles, and corporate culture.

This approach allows an organization to limit the risks of change without reducing the opportunities. It also establishes a mentoring relationship between those who have already led a change project and those who have not. People who have implemented change have learned this lesson the hard way. Because the participants of the program have already picked an improvement project that they will lead, the new skills can be applied immediately.

Putting participants into this new role also enforces the development of new attitudes and behaviors. Experience shows that you can only achieve sustainable change if the learning can be applied to the job. So the participants enter the program with a specific change initiative they will lead and manage. Change leadership projects that have been successful can then be used as case studies in the next round. By evaluating and preparing these projects for "living case studies," you form the basis for the next wave of projects. This mechanism helps people to realize the potential for dramatic change.

Most organizations underestimate their need for internal resources to drive large scale change efforts. Traditionally, the roll-out phase has been critical because of the expense of external resources and the reduced chances that results will last without transferring critical change skills to the client. The Change Leadership Program lowers the need for support from consultants and trainers to a minimum. Ideally, an organization should be able to cover most learning areas by themselves. External help can then be limited to preparing case studies and courses.

Providing a Toolbox

Every organization must develop its individual approach for managing change. "One size fits all" does not work. This can be a difficult process but inevitably the approach will fit the culture, reflecting the organization's specific needs. A generic strategy can give you a place to start. Change Leadership provides change leaders with tools and techniques that have proven to be successful in this setting (living case studies).

Especially in large, diversified companies, the challenges that individual businesses face can be quite different. The variety and complexity of the real business situation often makes it impossible to find the lowest common denominator. For some business units time may be the limiting factor; others may struggle with process or quality issues. It could, for example, be meaningful for a marketing organization to apply quality to the sales process while operations should address cycle time or planning issues. Therefore, the Change Leadership concept can be customized to an organization's specific requirements. Participants can select the courses they need to get the job done The versatility of the program is one of its greatest strengths.

Change Leadership Curriculum

The curriculum covers six critical areas:
  • Team Building
  • Project Management
  • Leadership
  • Customer Focus
  • Culture
  • Process Improvement

The senior leadership team determines where learning is needed. Using the generic list of courses as a reference, this selection process shapes the program and customizes it to the specific business situation.

Generic List of Courses

Team Building
  • Facilitating teams
  • Training results-oriented teams
  • Leading cross-cultural change
Project Management
  • Scoping breakthrough projects
  • Managing projects
  • Selecting and managing consultants
  • Quantifying improvement opportunities
  • Developing a shared vision
  • Developing a leadership agenda
  • Designing a Change Management ArchitectureSM
  • The role of the sponsor within the change effort
  • Mapping competencies
  • Designing new organization structures
  • The Role of IT in Business Process Reengineering
Process Improvement
* Redesigning business processes
* Using structured problem-solving techniques
* Reducing cycle time
* Implementing supply chains
* Reducing administrative work
* Creating shared services
* Redesigning internal processes
Customer Focus
  • Selling value to customers
  • Identifying drivers of customer loyalty
  • Assessing an organization's readiness for change
  • Changing organizational culture
  • Migrating from breakthrough results to continuous improvement
  • Developing communication strategies
  • Managing the politics of change

Change Leadership versus Benchmarking

Benchmarking has often been criticized for comparing apples with oranges. Every company is unique, making it easy to see the best practices, yet difficult to implement them in a different setting.

Benchmarking may also be superficial. Busy executives often find that their employees have millions of reasons why this or that would not work. The Change Leadership Program is aimed to transfer internal skills and in-depth, real life experience to avoid these problems.

Standard ten step programs normally fail to address all the nitty gritty details that make organizational life complicated. To have any impact, these concepts must address the specific business situation at hand. Different organizations have different weaknesses and strengths, so they should be treated accordingly. Their uniqueness is not an obstacle but a necessary condition for survival. Real benchmarking is a change leadership skill in itself. Xerox, the benchmarking pioneer, transformed benchmarking into their own, unique way of learning from the marketplace. To do so took years of experimenting with what worked for them and what did not. Through this process of customizing a generic strategy they unleashed the inherent potential.

How to Start?

Developing a Change Leadership Program is not a very complex task.

The basic steps are:
  1. Define a change management strategy
  2. Identify successful change projects
  3. Prepare the "living case studies"
  4. Add necessary components and courses from external sources
  5. Select the participants
  6. Identify concrete projects
  7. Run the Change Leadership Program
  8. Kick off the projects
  9. Analyze the results
  10. Start the next round


Change Leadership is a new concept aimed at closing the gap between pilots and full-scale implementation. Using internal talent to do this, the program combines two goals: developing a core staff of change leaders and replicating the results from the pilot phase. This emphasis on measurable results is one of the key advantages of the Change Leadership Program. Focusing on developing internal implementation skills, the program ensures that companies realize the full benefits of their change management initiative, transferring skills from those within the organization who have been there already to those who have not.

About Rath & Strong...

Rath & Strong is a management consulting firm headquartered in Lexington, Massachusetts. Founded in 1935, Rath & Strong helps clients achieve desired change by providing consulting services in four main areas: process and operations management, organization development, counsel to leaders, and customer connection. The firm specializes in helping clients address issues relating to these four areas simultaneously from a systems perspective.

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