A Human-Centered Approach to Change

Anyone who knows us knows well that my co-founder, Sam Franklin, and I are dedicated audiophiles (each with quite distinct tastes, of course). One of my favorite lyricists is David Bowie who, like Elton John, said that he could hear the music play out in his mind and pour into the piano before he knew the specific notes.

In 1971, Bowie released his song Changes, which amounted to a commercial failure at the time. Although we’re coming up on the 50th anniversary of the song, it seems to have even greater relevance. For most of us, 2020 was a year of such profound change that we will undoubtedly be telling stories about it for generations. And that change affected us in every part of our lives.

Bowie’s version of change focused primarily inward, contemplating the extent to which he was constantly reinventing himself to meet new challenges and artistic opportunities — he would gamely “turn and face the strange”. He also sagely observed that the experience of change is a primarily personal one, and there is precious little to be done by others to circumvent or fast track it; he wrote: “And these children that you spit on/As they try to change their worlds/They\’re immune to your consultations/They\’re quite aware of what they\’re going through”.

Today it seems that we talk about change more than ever, but we express it primarily as the inverse—something external. Change at work and in society has become a matter of what is happening to us or around us, a shift in either conditions or intended outcomes and therefore in processes to address those new conditions or achieve alternative outcomes. We talk about change as if it is something to be managed, and by that we tend to mean amending our strategies for getting things done. We speak much less about leading change, or engaging and shifting the ways that people think and are motivated.

That small distinction, in our experience, makes the difference between change efforts that work and those that don’t. Put differently, when organizational change focuses on shifting the way things are done and neglects to address the way people think, it falters and often fails. Effective change requires cultivating a sense of ownership and drive toward realizing a new future. A vision alone—no matter how passionately delivered—cannot compel people to change. Neither can a process—even if very specifically laid out—suffice in realizing a vision. Change leaders must be armed with the awareness and preparation to focus first and primarily on people.

Our approach to change widens the aperture of change management to address four key elements that people require to engage in effective change. Leaders of change create a clear and detailed vision for the future and make that vision concrete enough that their teams and stakeholders can see themselves in it such that it inspires ownership and action. They map out and manage an effective process for getting from the current state to this future vision, and align the resources and capacity to implement this process effectively. They develop strategic relationships that create a coalition of support around the change, one that is durable and there when the going gets tough. And they effectively break down and solve the problems that inevitably arise along the way—even when there is a clear vision, effective process, and strong, positive relationships.

Our framework may be incomplete. In fact, we know that it’s incomplete—and we’re okay with that because we recognize that change is perpetual. As David Bowie observed, “Every time I thought I\’d got it made/It seemed the taste was not so sweet” — because the mountain of leadership development has many peaks but no summits.