A new year is a natural time to talk about change.  And directing and enabling change is one of the most important responsibilities of a leader.  In today’s world of global connectedness and always-available and constantly-updated information, it seems like more than ever organizations must be willing and able to adjust to a dynamic environment.  So what must leaders know and do to effectively guide their organizations through change?

An article in the November/December 2017 Harvard Business Review, What Everyone Gets Wrong About Change Management, explains the shortcomings of traditional approaches to change and suggests ways to improve the odds of success. The authors state that the focus of change is often the implementation aspect; so experts and organizations strive to improve the execution of change initiatives. However, their analysis suggests that execution is only part of the issue and that leaders often fail to identify what to change.

They state that, based on their own research and analysis, the common thread of any organizational change is achieving greater value. This in turn is a combination of improving efficiency while reinvesting in growth. However, many change efforts are not successful because they focus on one or the other, instead of a balance between the two.  So the first part of determining a desired end state is to ensure that it entails both savings gains, such as cutting costs, and forward movement.

The second question is, what path do you take to the end state?  The authors determined that change efforts typically increase the organization’s abilities in one of (or combinations of) these areas, which they refer to as “quests”:  global presence, customer focus, nimbleness, innovation, and sustainability. The authors also found three common issues in choosing a quest: (1) overlooking the need to choose a quest, (2) selecting the “wrong” quest, for example, one that might be the focus of your competition but is not the right direction for the goals of your organization, and (3) being too muddled and not focused enough in choosing a quest.

The first step in determining your end state and the path forward is to do an honest survey of where your organization is today.  A good starting point is evaluating how skilled or strong your organization is in the five quest areas of global presence, customer focus, nimbleness, innovation, and sustainability.  The areas where your organization is weakest will help you identify the most urgent needs for change.  This process requires a willingness to expose what may be organizational blind spots, and this may be uncomfortable. But it also opens up necessary dialogue about what the challenges may be and how best to address them.

The diagnostic stage often reveals several challenges, and this means having a subsequent conversation about setting priorities.  Which are the most important issues to address? What is the effort versus the impact of addressing each challenge?  Are there interdependencies, or limitations due to staffing or other resources?  Such discussions are necessary to get convergence around and agreement on organization-wide priorities.

Change efforts often focus on successful execution. To improve the success of your change efforts in the new year, make sure you also have a clear idea of where your organization needs to go and what will get you there.

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