How good leaders manage change

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20/03/2018

OPINION | The ability of a leader to make good decisions during times of change is critical.

Decisions are taken to make progress. So, if a leader’s decision-making is ineffective, the organisation will either stall, make limited progress or head in the wrong direction.

A 2013 Towers Watson study reinforced what other studies have shown – that the majority of change efforts in organisations fail.

It’s easy for leaders to get swept up in the initial enthusiasm for a change program and to be overly optimistic about timelines and benefits schedules. As the work starts, however, unexpected obstacles and challenges arise, making progress slower and more difficult than planned. What looked easy at the start, becomes harder in reality.

As Harvard professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter said: “Everyone loves inspiring beginnings and happy endings; it is just the middles that involve hard work.”

It’s also in the middle that poor decisions made at the start come to the fore.

There’s no winging it

Making consistently good decisions takes time and requires information, analysis and planning. A leader can’t just wing it and expect effective outcomes.

Conscious change leaders make decisions while aware of the consequences and implications of those decisions. They map out the options – knowing that selecting one option usually prevents them from choosing another. They are conscious of the trade-offs, and make the decision with their eyes wide open.

Widen the frame of reference

Good change managers know that decisions aren’t made on facts alone because bias pervades decision-making. The brain takes short-cuts and discards information that doesn’t fit with its world view.

Consequently, good change managers are curious and invite different opinions – instead of just talking with people who will agree with them and silencing dissenting voices. By doing this, they welcome all types of news, even if it is difficult to hear, as they know it will broaden their perspective.

Another common trait among effective change leaders is that they talk to people at all organisational levels, recognising that hierarchy and gatekeepers can interfere with the information they receive.

If access to a leader is heavily managed, it can be harder for that leader to have an accurate assessment of progress and issues. This is because information can be filtered and sanitised before it hits their desk, as people strive to paint the most optimistic picture of what’s happening.

Be prepared and deliberate

Effective change leaders are deliberate about involving the right people at the right time to ensure traction when the decision is made, and less internal sabotage later. Additionally, this process of building engagement and commitment ultimately creates more engaged teams and stakeholders.

It’s also important to be deliberate about when you make decisions.  Understand that when the brain is tired, it takes the path of least resistance, letting assumptions and habits drive thoughts and actions.

For leaders facing uncharted territory, relying on what they have always done before and using default thinking patterns is fraught with danger. To minimise this risk, effective leaders establish a clear decision-making process that is fit-for-purpose.

Great decisions are the result of planning, consideration and effort.  They don’t happen by chance.

Michelle Gibbings is a change and leadership expert and founder of Change Meridian, which works with leaders and teams at a number of Australia’s largest institutional investors. She is the author of Step Up: How to build your influence at work.

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