Conscious change leadership: Achieving breakthrough results

By Dean Anderson and Linda Ackerman AndersonFall 2011 | Print
Imagine your organization and all its change efforts being wildly successful—not marginally successful, but so successful that the achievements are truly extraordinary. And not just in your current change initiatives but in the vast majority of them going forward.

Is this possible? Research shows that 60–70 percent of all change efforts fail to achieve their desired results, and these dismal success rates have existed for over a decade. Based on our 30 years of helping senior executives lead change, we know that you can increase your success rate to nearly 100 percent.

The answer is not in change management or project management, the two primary methods leaders have used to guide organizational change over this past decade of marginal performance. Both are proven and effective methods for developmental and transitional change, but woefully insufficient for transformational changes. And herein lies the problem: today, most organizations are going through transformation.

You do not need to abandon change and project management; what you need is to carry their best practices forward into a more complete discipline for transformation. We call this discipline conscious change leadership. Conscious change leadership starts with a fundamental shift in how leaders perceive reality. It calls for, and is fueled by, greater self-awareness and a more expansive leadership mind-set and worldview. Without this shift of awareness, leaders are constantly blindsided by the unique human and change process dynamics of transformation. Because they do not see or understand these dynamics, they cannot lead through them.

Three Critical Focus Areas

All organizational change requires competent and simultaneous attention to three critical areas: content, people, and process (Figure 1 available in full article).

  • Content refers to what in the organization needs to change, such as structure, systems, business processes, technology, products, or services.
  • People refers to the human dynamics of change, including individual mind-set and behavior as well as collective culture. Key elements include worldview, emotions, values, motivations, commitment and resistance, communications, engagement, politics, training, and readiness.
  • Process refers to the way the content and people changes will be planned, designed, and implemented. The change process includes all the change-related actions and decisions from the moment of conceiving the need to change to the full realization of the intended business and cultural outcomes.

Leaders usually get the content solutions right because that is where they put their focus. But results do not come from just the new structure or technology. Desired outcomes get produced only when the people embrace those content changes, emotionally own them, and maximize their utilization. Underperformance, breakdowns, and causes of failure in transformation nearly always occur in the areas of people and the change process.

Worksheet: Where Do You Put Your Change Leadership Attention?

1. What percentage of your total change leadership attention do you put on

____content ____people ____change process

2. What percentage of your executive team’s total change leadership attention goes to

____content ____people ____change process

Three Types of Change

Leaders face three different types of change: developmental, transitional, and transformational (Figure 2 available in full article). Each type has different content, people, and process dynamics. Therefore, each type requires different mind-sets, strategies, methods, and tools to succeed. You must know how to accurately assess the type of change you are leading in order to know what change strategy you will need.

Developmental Change

Developmental change is the simplest effort. From a content perspective, it is the improvement of what is—an existing skill, method, performance standard, or condition. Examples of developmental change include improving a business process, increasing job skills, improving an HR system like performance management, or refining the employee hiring or succession planning process.

The impact on people is relatively mild, usually calling for enhanced knowledge, skills, or ways of operating. Change management tools work well to handle the clarification of change roles, decision making, communications, and training needs. From a process perspective, traditional project management approaches suffice, as the significant work flow variables can be known in advance and managed against time and budget.

In developmental change, leaders can declare the desired outcomes and deliverables, and for the most part, managers can execute through the existing organizational structure and functional work teams.

Transitional Change

Transitional change is more complex. Rather than simply improving what is, transitional change installs a new structure, system, business process, or technology (content). It requires a transition to a new state, which is knowable and definable at the beginning of the change process. Examples include building a new plant, migrating to a new performance management system, installing a new structure, and some technology implementations (those that do not radically alter the business model, work designs, roles, or service paradigms).

In transitional change, the change process is fairly predictable and linear, and can also be managed against a tight budget and timeline. Traditional approaches to project management are quite effective, especially when the people affected by the change are fully aware of what is going on, understand their role in the new state, and are committed to making it happen. People dynamics are a bit more complex because people are being asked to journey to a new future. Along with needing new knowledge and skills, staff can also be required to change or develop new behaviors, making transitional changes more personally challenging. But because the future is definable at the start and will operate in a paradigm and worldview similar to the current reality, the stress is not too high. Good change management practices of building readiness, increasing stakeholder engagement, communicating frequently, providing skill and behavior training, and providing coaching plans can help reduce many of the people issues.

In transitional changes, leaders must take on a more overt sponsorship role. The prospect of success is greater the more visible they are in the organization championing the effort. They often must build a parallel governing structure to oversee, design, and execute the changes, calling in project managers, organizational development practitioners, and change management specialists to support the work. Change sponsors must establish the outcomes and provide the resources, but can mostly delegate execution through the parallel structure, monitoring progress on a periodic basis and holding people accountable throughout implementation.

In most transitional changes, content experts design the future state solution, while the program office designs the implementation process and change managers address the people dynamics. Separating content, people, and process in this way is common practice, never ideal, but feasible in developmental and transitional changes. In transformation, it is nearly always disastrous.

Transformational Change

Transformational change carries very different dynamics and requires fundamentally different change leadership mind-sets, approaches, and methodology.

Transformational change is a radical shift of strategy, structure, systems, processes, or technology (content), so significant that it requires a shift of culture, behavior, and mind-set (people) to implement and sustain over time. The most successful transformational processes integrate content and people right from the start, engaging staff in the case for change and the need for vision and strategy long before the content solution is determined.

The new state that results from the transformation, from a content perspective, is largely uncertain at the beginning of the change process. It is not knowable or definable, but rather, clarity emerges as you proceed. At the beginning, you have a general direction, but the ultimate outcome of your transformation gets clarified as you discover essential facts along the way that you could have never known without first leaving the gate. Because clarity of the future emerges as a product of the change process itself, transformational change is nonlinear, with numerous course corrections and adjustments. Therefore, you cannot manage it in a typical command-and-control way; at best, you can consciously facilitate its many twists and turns. This requires a unique change process navigation system, one that is far more strategic and intelligent than project management methodologies. Project management tools are helpful, but only when used as “rolling plans” of no more than 120 days, which can be coursecorrected on a just-in-time basis as needed. We use a nine-phase change process model called “The Change Leader’s Roadmap” to inform the strategic navigation of change, and then we add a project management methodology to manage the details.

From a people perspective, transformation calls for a shift of individual mind-set and collective culture. The marketplace drivers, and the content changes required to respond to them, are so substantial that executives and staff must perceive their business, customers, products, profit models, and service delivery differently, often from an entirely new paradigm. If leaders stay stuck in their old worldviews, they do not see what is occurring in their markets. For example, an entrenched worldview caused Detroit automakers to lose market share to the Japanese because they did not see the growing customer demand for fuel efficiency and quality. It led the Swiss watch manufacturers to miss the move to digital technology, losing over 80 percent of market share, and it caused Microsoft to lag the migration from desktop to the Web, losing critical ground to Google.

Transformational change, across industries and the government and nonprofit sectors, is generally moving in a similar direction, away from cultures of command and control toward co-creating, away from separation toward connection and integration, and away from company-centric toward customer-focused. Transformation is generally toward greater empowerment, collaboration, cross-boundary support, innovation, system integration, and customer intimacy. Without these required shifts in culture, new content solutions never take hold and deliver the results intended. People’s mind-sets and the collective culture must transform in unison with the market drivers and the content solutions they demand.

Kodak is a great example. Historically, it was very product- centric, hierarchical, and command-and-control oriented. It was structured around its core film business, but with that lucrative business eroded by digital technology, the leaders had to begin the organization’s transformation long before they knew the design of their new digital business (content). They first went into digital cameras and became number one in U.S. sales, but the profit model was inadequate. So they transformed their business model from hard products to digital services that help customers manage, organize, and share their digital libraries. This direction seems more promising, but the Kodak transformation is far from over, with more course corrections on the horizon as new opportunities and challenges arise. The better Kodak is at navigating this nonlinear, emergent nature of the transformational process, the more success it will have.

To succeed in its new market and in the dynamic nature nique people and process requirements of transformation, at Kodak and elsewhere.

Worksheet: What Type of Change Are You Facing?

Instructions: Determine the primary type of change you are leading by answering these litmus test questions. If you answer yes to two or more questions for one type of change, then that is the primary type of change you are facing. Think of the overall change that is occurring, not the sub-initiatives within it. In many cases, multiple types of change will be occurring, but the most complex is always primary, as you must develop a change strategy for it.

  • Developmental Change

1. Does your change effort primarily require an improvement of your existing way of operating rather than a new installation?

2. Will skill or knowledge training, performance improvement strategies, and communications suffice to carry out this change?

3. Does your current culture and mind-set support the needs of this change?

  • Transitional Change

1. Does your change effort require you to dismantle your existing way of operating and replace it with something known but different?

2. At the beginning of your change effort, were you or will you be able to design a definitive picture of the new state?

3. Is it realistic to expect this change to occur over a predetermined timetable?

  • Transformational Change

1. Does your organization need to begin its change process before the destination is fully known and defined?

2. Is the scope of this change so broad that it requires the organization’s culture and people’s behavior and mind-sets to shift significantly to implement the changes successfully and achieve the new state and its desired outcomes?

3. Does the change require the organization’s structure, operations, products, services, or technology to change radically, even embracing a new paradigm, to meet the needs of customers and the marketplace?

A Conscious Approach

Leaders can take two approaches to transformation: either autopilot or conscious. Their approach determines the level of awareness they operate from, which determines what they see and what they miss. Approach is like climbing a mountain. From the valley floor, the view is limited, but from the peak, you see most everything.

Operating on autopilot, leaders respond automatically and unconsciously to the dynamics of transformation based on their conditioned habits, existing worldview, and dominant leadership style. Their perceptual lens is filtered by their current biases, beliefs, and assumptions, causing them to either not see or misinterpret vital content, people, and process dynamics. The Detroit automakers and Swiss watch manufacturers both got blindsided by their autopilot functioning.

Leaders who take a conscious approach still have conditioned beliefs, of course, but they relate to them differently. They understand that mind-set is causative. They realize that their beliefs and assumptions determine how they see the world; which in turn determines how they think, feel, and behave; which influences their decisions, actions, and results.

Consequently, conscious change leaders focus not just on the external world but also on the internal world of awareness and beliefs. They turn their attention inwardly and actively pursue self-awareness. They seek to understand their mind-sets so they can transform the aspects of their conditioning that limit their perception, actions, and outcomes. Autopilot leaders simply react. They apply their old change and project management methods and leadership style to transformation because their conditioned awareness offers no alternatives. Jim Kouzes, coauthor of the best-selling The Leadership Challenge and the new release The Truth about Leadership, suggests that personal change is not very common in leaders. Kouzes says that the lowest-ranking variable on his 360-degree assessment of leader behavior is, and has been for years, “Leaders asking for feedback” on how their actions affect other people’s performance. He concludes, “Leaders don’t stop to find out how they are seen by others. They rarely look in the mirror.” Other research shows that less than 5 percent of the world’s population is actually awake and operating from a level of conscious awareness. Introspection and personal change is simply not a leadership priority for many, but if you want to succeed at transformation, it must become your top priority.

Personal growth follows a common trajectory. As leaders transform limiting beliefs and worldviews, their awareness grows in two directions: it expands to see more broadly and it penetrates to see more deeply. By pursuing personal development, conscious change leaders develop four ways of perceiving that are critical to leading transformation. Autopilot leaders do not have these capabilities.

  • Seeing systems: Perceiving interdependencies, for example, across organizational functions and marketplace dynamics; seeing causes and effects, connections across boundaries; seeing across space.
  • Seeing process: Perceiving how events and circumstances influence each other across time; inputs and outputs; impacts over time; flow of events; momentum.
  • Seeing internal and external: Perceiving the internal dynamics of external events, and how each is a reflection of the other; seeing the mind-set underneath a behavior—such as the cultural dynamics reflected in an organization’s structure and systems.
  • Seeing consciously: Witnessing objectively what is occurring; being mindful, present, and awake to what is happening rather than operating unconsciously.

With expanded awareness, conscious change leaders more readily identify marketplace wake-up calls for content changes in their organizations. They know how to design and facilitate emergent, nonlinear change processes, and they see how to engage the inner passion and commitment of people.

Mind-set Drives Best Practices for Transformation

Conscious change leaders employ key best practices for transformation because their mind-sets enable them to see their benefits. For example:

  • Going slow to go fast; they consciously design their change process to build commitment in the workforce rather than hastily jumping right to designing the content solution.
  • Asking for input from stakeholders and customers early and often.
  • Integrating content and people activities into one change process from the beginning and throughout.
  • Announcing early that the change process is transformational and nonlinear, that there is much not yet known, and that they seek staff engagement to figure it out.
  • Minimizing command and control and maximizing co-creation; we are all in this together.
  • Communicating often, in all directions, and spending time face-to-face with the workforce.
  • Empowering others; trusting staff to make decisions.
  • Listening and coaching more; telling and providing answers less.
  • Walking the talk; modeling the way; telling the truth.
  • Sharing feelings and nurturing relationships.

With their lack of awareness, autopilot leaders inadvertently do the exact opposite. And therein lies the cause of the high failure rates in leading transformation.

The Bottom Line

The bottom line in transformation: your success will be in direct correlation to your level of awareness and worldview. Don’t get caught by old beliefs and worldviews. Operate consciously by turning inwardly to observe your own mind-set in action. Increase your self-awareness and expand your perception to see interdependencies across time and space. Perceive the deeper human dynamics at play in your people and culture. With conscious awareness, you can take the best of change and project management and apply it appropriately to transformation. But more important, you will step into conscious change leadership and become able to design and implement change processes that engage the commitment of your organization so your people produce truly breakthrough results. Operating consciously, you will create a foundation upon which your success rate at leading transformation will quickly move toward 100 percent.

Dean Anderson and Linda Ackerman Anderson are authors, speakers, and change strategists dedicated to helping leaders build their organizations’ change capability. They coauthored “Beyond Change Management: How to Achieve Breakthrough Results Through Conscious Change Leadership” and “The Change Leader’s Roadmap: How to Navigate Your Organization’s Transformation,” both now in their second editions. Linda and Dean cofounded their consulting and training firm, Being First (www.beingfirst .com), 30 years ago as early innovators in the fields of change leadership and human performance. They are currently launching The Change Leader’s Network at to serve conscious change leaders worldwide with development, collaboration, and methodology. You can reach them at and, respectively.

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