Should Leaders Also Manage Organizational Change?

by Vibeke Vad Baunsgaard

Bringing about Successful Organizational Change

Would you let a heart surgeon perform a lung transplant on you or a loved one? My guess is that you would prefer a surgeon specializing in lung transplants and not one with much less or no experience. Otherwise, the margins of error are simply estimated too great. Consequently, such functional crossovers are not expected of surgeons, nor allowed. What if we apply this analogy to organizational change processes?

The numbers speak for themselves: 54-60% of organizations fail major organizational change processes (depending on how it is measured – research show of up to 70% failure rates).

Would you let a leader of business as usual lead a major change process in your organization? It’s done all the time, and this functional crossover is frequently an expected responsibility. The results are clear. More than half of the ‘patients’ die or suffer severe drawbacks. The numbers speak for themselves: 54-60% of organizations fail major organizational change processes (depending on how it is measured – research show of up to 70% failure rates). We have the knowledge needed to lower this percentage drastically and assure much higher success rates with organizational change processes. In fact, if your organization is facing a major organizational change process right now, we can specifically advise you so that it will likely succeed. There is only one simple, yet difficult hurdle still to overcome:

The success of organizational change processes depends largely on leaders and managers’ willingness and ability to incorporate the specific human dynamics of the organization into the strategic planning of the entire organizational change process.

To resume: both willingness and the ability to analyze, understand and incorporate human dynamics into the strategic planning, are prerequisites for success. The first obstacle, which organizations that fail change processes face is the need to change their approach. Despite the simplicity of this advice (referring here to the decision to change an approach, not implementation), – and both research and practice speak loud and clear on this matter – most leaders and managers will resist and ignore the advice to proceed instead with ‘business as usual’. They will hence reproduce their failures and lack of success from previous years.

Should Leaders also Manage Organizational Change?

In the title of this article I pose the question: Should leaders also lead/manage organizational change processes? Please note that we indicate the premise that the organization we picture is otherwise a somewhat healthy organization. Given the points made by the heart/lung analogy above, the simple answer to the questions is no. Being great at one thing doesn’t automatically make us great at another.

A great leader of the daily events in any public or private organization is not necessarily a great leader of organizational change.

In fact, in larger organizations, it can be expected that this is not the case. Hence, the slightly more complicated answer is that it depends on the size of the organization. In micro organizations, a leader can be in touch with human dynamics. In medium sized organizations and larger ones, it becomes increasingly challenging given the number and growing complexity of internal and external inter-relations. It is the latter I have in mind in the following. Expecting a leader to also assume responsibility for the leadership of upcoming organizational change is in many cases not taking organizational change processes seriously. In light of the importance of knowing human dynamics for successful strategic planning and in light of knowing how difficult it can be for a leader to attain this knowledge in practice, the inclusion of a change agent in your leader and management team is adviced. In the following, I explain how this may benefit your organizational change processes.

Knowledge of Human Dynamics for Successful Organizational Change is Context Specific

Now, roughly speaking – leaders of business as usual are predictably focused on issues such as technology, strategy, strategic planning, business models, foreseeing the future of the business in the market, networking, stakeholder relationships, ‘connecting the dots’ as well as cultural concerns and values such as the company brand and identity and so forth. Time is less likely being allocated to being tuned in to the human dynamics of the organization as to the content of matters. Some will say with good reason, given the scope of responsibilities and limitations of time. Hence, for some, it is about the willingness and for others, it is about not prioritizing it in a busy daily program.

A key point is that knowledge of human dynamics is organizational specific; it is context-dependent.

Thus there is no other way to gain this knowledge than to observe and speak to organizational members, managers, leaders, partners and relevant others. Therefore, we cannot hire an external professional (such as a consultant or a bureau) to bring this type of knowledge into the organization. This is important to take note of, as the hiring of consultants and large consultancy houses are a common approach to dealing with organizational change, particularly by larger organizations. This is understandable in every way because then the change process will not require time and effort from already busy leaders and managers. They can, in other words, continue to take care of business as usual. Yet, hiring external resources for the change process can cause a great deal of internal resistance by organizational members, since these consultants are not attuned to how things are done within the organization.

Working together to Facilitate Successful Organizational Change

Knowing the human dynamics and the organizational culture reveals insights related to how things are done and how people act or feel. This, in turn, is a great predictor of tomorrow. There are no guarantees predicting tomorrow, but knowing today seems the best way to gain knowledge of tomorrow. If an organizational member likes or dislikes something today, he/she will probably demonstrate the same preferences tomorrow. This, in turn, is indispensable knowledge for the creation of sustainable plans that will enable the entire organization to work together to ensure success.

Knowing what is important to our employees and how this differs across generations, departments, units, functions, and geography is of the utmost importance for effective change. Moreover, getting an organization to mutually enact implementation processes demands coordination, communication, and cooperation between teams, functional units, departments and members at all levels in the organization. If these are considered necessary in the daily organizational life, consider them of paramount importance during times of organizational change.

For instance, the clash between functional units such as a sales team and a research and development team is classic. Salespeople want to accommodate the customers’ wish list. Research and Development think that the sales representatives are going too far with promises to customers. Those in the sales department believe that Research and Development are out of touch with market needs. In fact, reports tell us that a majority of fortune 500 companies struggle with what I in my research refer to as cross-functional integration. This concerns the degree to which organizational members of different departments and functions collaborate and communicate.

There is an abundance of barriers to effectuating positive cross-functional relations. Barriers such as traditional thinking, jargon, dominant logics, resistance to new things and comfortable familiarity with old solutions, etc. Overcoming these barriers is possible, but again… only by an extensive contextual understanding of people and structures. As previously mentioned, larger corporations/organizations commonly hire consultancy bureaus to manage major organizational change processes. When doing so, context-dependent information is given far less consideration during the change planning process. However, in order to avoid feelings of hurt, insult, disrespect, and resistance it is important to know what the other person, department or unit, etc. values.

What then is a possible solution to the problems addressed above?

Appoint a Change Agent to Lead & Manage Organizational Change

The change agent must also know about, the organizational culture, the dominant logics that may hinder or facilitate specific processes, the ‘group think’, the status of different groups, the chemistry between all groups and levels in the organization and so forth.

One way of solving both the problem of specificity (heart surgeon, not lung surgeon) and the challenge of gaining context (organizational specific knowledge) is to appoint a change agent to your management team. If you are a C-suite size organization, then it can be beneficial for you to take on board a Chief Change Officer. If you are a medium-sized organization, appoint a ‘change agent’. The Chief Change Officer, or change agent, must in addition to having the required skills and knowledge needed about change processes, also have the necessary contextual understanding to effectively apply his or her skills and knowledge. The change agent’s responsibility is – as mentioned above – to know the dynamics in the organization of individuals, in and between groups, teams, units, etc. The change agent must also know about, the organizational culture, the dominant logics that may hinder or facilitate specific processes, the ‘group think’, the status of different groups, the chemistry between all groups and levels in the organization and so forth. It is this knowledge that qualifies the Chief Change Officer or the change agent to offer extraordinary advice on how to bring about organizational change successfully.


Vibeke Vad Baunsgaard, Ph.D.
Vibeke Vad Baunsgaard, Ph.D.
Vibeke is Founder and CEO at ManageMagazine. Entrepreneur, lecturer and Honorary Research Associate at the University of Technology Sydney. Sociologist and Ph.D. in Organization Studies and Innovation Management. Passionate about facilitating a positive research impact through knowledge sharing and professional networks, an impact that will allow people to live out their highest, truest and fullest expression of themselves.

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