Leading Change

By David Newby (Copyright 2020)

There are few key processes that need to be followed when trying to bring about change. The following illustration describes this process:

Establish a “burning platform” – a case for change

We have to create enough urgency to prompt action. Leaders generally underestimate how hard it is to drive people out of their comfort zones. Effective leaders are willing to have awkward conversations about painful facts. John Kotter in his book Leading Change (1996) suggests that when 75% of leaders are convinced that the status quo is no longer viable then there will be sufficient urgency to facilitate change. Kotter also goes on to say that 90% of change initiatives that fail, do so because leaders failed to establish a sense of urgency. In developing the case for change make sure that you are factual rather than just promoting change for the sake of change. The following may prove helpful in developing a case for change:

  • For organisations experiencing decline
    • Budget forecasting that clearly shows when the organisation will run out of money
    • Research that points to a shift in contextual realities that affect your organisation
    • A graphic that clearly shows the declining influence that your organisation is having in terms of its core business
    • A graphic that shows the declining trends in funding, staffing, programmes etc over a number of years
  • For organisations experiencing rapid growth
    • A graphic that shows the increase in the reach of the organisation on a year to year basis (in terms of beneficiaries, funding, volunteers, programmes, geographic coverage etc)
    • A graphic demonstrating increased workload per management member (e.g. number of staff being managed, number of volunteers being managed, size of budget being managed)
    • Research that demonstrates the likely growth in the area of need that the organisation is serving

Have a compelling vision of a preferred future

Once the case for change has been made, it is important to paint a picture of a desired future. Although the leader can give a strong indication of the general direction, it is important for staff and Board members to be part of developing the fuller picture. Once the picture is clear, the leader then becomes the champion of the vision and begins to develop and empower other staff to be champions of the vision

Have a clear strategy of next steps to the preferred future (remember you may be building the bridge as you walk on it)

It is one thing to have a vision, it is quite another to have a strategy to achieve the vision. The vision establishes where you are going but the strategy describes how you are going to get there. The leader together with the senior management will need to drive the implementation of the strategy but it is important for there to be buy in from the wider staff. It is not helpful to put all of the staff together to thrash out a detailed strategy. It is often more helpful to have a broad consultation to develop the key focus areas of the strategy and then get smaller groups to work on some of the finer detail. Each working group should be led by a Management team member so that it is seen to be important but also because management has a view of the overall picture and can make sure that attention is paid to dependencies, duplication and possibilities for integration. Be careful not to get bogged down in too much detail. Often we are building the bridge as we walk on it and what is most important is to establish the main thrust of an initiative and the next step that needs to be taken. 

Manage the emotions of those struggling with change

When we look at the graphic we see a person falling off the bridge and needing a mattress to cushion their fall. When we are leading change we are not just managing a planning process but we are, more importantly, managing the emotions of people who are riding the rollercoaster of emotions associated with change and transition. Resistance to change is largely associated with loss as the following table developed by Rick Maurer (2010) in his book “Beyond the wall of resistance” demonstrates:

When people are resisting change the key role of the leader is to create opportunities for them to be heard and understood – in other word to LISTEN. As we listen, we listen not for their demands or accusations but rather for the needs that lie behind these. Once we have understood the needs we are able to identify those needs that the organization can meet and those that simply cannot be met. As we respond to these needs the leader helps those struggling with the change to reach a point of decision. Sometimes by meeting just a few needs, people decide to get onboard. Other times the needs of the individual are at odds with those of the organization and a hard conversation has to follow in which they have to decide to either adapt or to leave. 

Provide information and inspiration for those ready to adopt the change

Once people are onboard with the change, they need information and inspiration. This is demonstrated by the rope in the graphic that helps the person reach for the desired future. There is nothing more frustrating for people in a change process than to find themselves ready to move forward but finding their leaders suspicious of the change or ignorant of what the next step in the change process is. It is for this reason that the leader needs to deal swiftly and firmly with managers who undermine the change process. Failure to do so undermines the whole change process as staff begin to question whether leadership is serious about implementing the change. Similarly leaders and managers should look for opportunities to affirm people who embrace the change. This can be done through incentives, awards, public recognition, promotion and similar initiatives. 

Sometimes staff want to support the change initiative but don’t have the necessary knowledge or skills to do so. Training is thus a critical part of the process so that people are empowered to support the change. Similarly people may have the skills and knowledge but the structures, policies and systems of the organization are preventing the change from happening (e.g. budgets, HR policies, team structures). These impediments or obstacles to change need to be dealt with swiftly and decisively so that every aspect of the organization aligns behind the change. It is often only when these things shift that people truly believe that the change is serious.


  • Kotter, John P. 1996. Leading Change. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.
  • Kotter, John P. 2008. A sense of urgency. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.
  • Maurer, Rick. 2010. Beyond the wall of resistance. Texas: Bard Books Inc.