September 2013 | 

Learning to Lead Change


In his new book from Wharton Digital Press, Leading Successful Change, Greg Shea notes that “constant change is the norm rather than the exception. Globalization, increased competition, and constant technological turnover mean that no organization can run in place: change is not optional. It is also difficult and the sad fact is that the clear majority of change efforts fail.”

Shea developed a system for driving change based on lessons learned and together with co-author Cassie Solomon drew on over 50 combined years of helping organizations change and helping people create successful change to write this book. For Shea, some of that experience comes from two decades of leading Wharton’s Leading Organizational Change program. He explains, “There is an awful lot of focus on the psychological aspect of change and the abilities of the leader. Are you inspiring enough? Are you modeling the change? Of course those things matter, and we cover them in the program, but it is rarely enough to drive real, lasting change.

“The other piece is the systems side, and it’s often largely if not completely ignored. This is a hole in many approaches. Changing the system, or the work environment, is actually more important. If you asked me to predict who was more likely to get people to change, someone who’s very good at managing the psychology of change or someone who knows how to adapt the system for the change, I would choose the second person. The first one will very convincingly ask people to do things that don’t fit with their environment. The second may not be as personally convincing, but by changing the work environment she’ll probably get more people to change how they act and not just for today or this week.”

The Work Systems approach takes advantage of the human ability to adapt. “As a species, we have a pretty good record over tens of thousands of years of adapting. It’s spottier when it comes to changing. If you can foster adaptation by making the work environment a different place, giving people reasonable, coordinated signals that their world has changed, then they will do a much better job of adapting.”

Shea explains that people think and act in ways that fit the world they’re in. “People act in accord with what makes sense to them. To really drive change, you need to change their world. If they’re in a different environment, they will adapt. This is much more effective than simply telling people they have to do something different — no matter how inspiring your speech is.”

But before you start altering the environment, Shea says, you first need a very clear picture of how the change will look once it’s in place. Executives in Leading Organizational Change spend time creating scenes to help develop this vision of the future [see his Nano Tool for a four-step method for creating scenes]. Once they envision the changed future, they think systematically about what they need to do to get those scenes to occur.

“Leaders too often underestimate the power of the work environment to precipitate or stall change,” Shea says. “We have identified eight aspects of the work systems that a change leader can convert to ‘Levers of Change’. The change leader needs to consider these aspects both individually and as a whole. You need to coordinate them to ensure that one aspect of the environment isn’t telling people to make a change while another tells them to continue as they have always done and they thereby cancel one another out.”

The levers range from the physical setting to available skills to rewards. “Because each aspect can provide powerful cues to organizational members about how to act, each can become a powerful lever of change, a way to precipitate behavioral change and so drive desired transformations deep into the company.

“The work environment also is a form of communication and often much more powerful over time than words, even a great speech. When people look up from their desks, what messages are they getting? The environment tells them a lot about how to act. That environment becomes even more important as you rise through the ranks of your company. The more senior you are, the less personally accessible you become to many if not most organizational members. Let the system — the rewards, the design of the space, the organization — speak for you, every day and to every organizational member.”