Why “Change Leadership” Instead of “Change Management”?

Many leaders right now are finding themselves in the organizational equivalent of the day after a natural disaster. The peak of the COVID-19 era appears to be behind us, which leaves us surveying the landscape around us, determining what is still functional and valuable, what must be repaired, and what must be entirely rebuilt. It would be easy to repair and rebuild in the image of what was before—a world for which we have a clear template. Yet most leaders recognize that the world of the future will not be served well by the systems of the past, and this is a unique opportunity to reimagine those systems. But how to make them “future proof”?

We’re frequently approached by companies and organizations that recognize the need for change is afoot, but aren’t entirely clear how to make it happen. They ask us whether our work can help them get through this complex period of uncertainty and volatility, and whether we can help them navigate this change without losing their team, their customers, their constituents, and anyone else who needs to come along on the journey.

The answer is: no. We don’t help people get through change. We help people and their teams embrace change as a constant that will forever be a player in the future of their work. The difference is that rather than seeing change as an event, we see it as a cycle. 

Change Is Constant

Historically, change has been viewed and navigated as episodic: something that happens, is managed, and then leads to a period of stability before eventually (hopefully a long time from now) another change is necessitated. The problem with this approach is that it creates long periods in which strategy and process are increasingly misaligned with the work that a team really needs to be doing to achieve success. (For more on our thoughts about the outmoded idea of long-term strategic planning, see here.)

Instead, we see change as a constant element of the context in which all people and organizations operate. To navigate it effectively, we know that executives alone cannot monitor and decide when the time has come to develop a new strategic plan, shift the organization’s day-to-day work, or reorganize efforts to meet the shifting demands of the field. Rather, every individual within the organization needs to become a sensory unit, a person capable of perceiving shifting context and communicating the implications of those shifts to their teams and leaders. Further, as Michael Fullan points out, the culture has to support ongoing employee learning so that everyone continues to stretch and deepen their thinking.

Not every shift in the environment requires radical change. In fact, small shifts and small changes along the way can dramatically reduce the need for radical change. Rather, these small shifts keep organizations at the leading edge of their field year after year, and this feels much better to all involved over the alternative of trying to catapult ahead of the competition and make up for long lag periods to remain relevant.

This change in mindset also forces clarity of shared vision, which we know supports employees’ engagement and willingness to work through tough periods. And it shares critical power with people on the front lines, whose engagement with clients and constituents is often what makes the difference between an organization that thrives and one that shutters.

Our Approach to Change Leadership

How do we help organizations make these changes? We work closely with organizational leaders to develop executive teams that have core skills and capabilities to both navigate complexity and ambiguity, and also cultivate and elevate those skills in their employees. We help them build lightweight and flexible but deeply aligned systems that become superhighways of information across the organization. We facilitate key organizational events and activities designed to engage everyone in the process of understanding and interpreting that information to make informed decisions about changes that need to happen in real time. We also help teams reconnect with their missions and remember that great work happens when purpose, process, and product create something of value.

So why do we believe in and advocate for “change leadership” rather than “change management”? Because leadership is about perceiving shifts in context and feeling empowered to translate those shifts into efforts that make sure the work you and your team are doing matters. Management is about doing your level best to implement a defined process. Management matters, and we’ll write more about that in a future post, but when it comes to navigating change, leadership is essential.