Book review: Leading change the right way

It Starts With One: Changing Individuals Changes Organizations

J. Stewart Black and Hal Gregersen

Wharton School Publishing,


I’m camped out at the photocopier, cranking out the latest and greatest change and transition newsletter. A co-worker wanders by as I kill a forest worth of trees.

The co-worker doesn’t share my zeal for all things re-engineered.

"You won’t be so keen on change when you’re married, have kids and a mortgage," predicts the older and wiser co-worker. "You’ll happily settle for the status quo. Come to work. Do your job. Go home. No surprises. No change."

The co-worker gives the hot-off-the-copier newsletter a cursory read.

"And you won’t get worked up over flavour-of-the-month change projects."

Fast forward 12 years. I’m married with two kids, a mortgage and minivan. But I still haven’t settled for the status quo. And I get myself in trouble when nothing’s changing and I’m bored and restless.

Yet the co-worker wasn’t completely wrong. My enthusiasm for corporate change projects has waxed and waned. Who hasn’t been conscripted for a project that doesn’t lead to the promised land? Where the senior exec who’s championing the change does a cameo at the kickoff meeting and is never seen or heard from again? Where the orphaned team strikes out on a journey of introspection and irrelevance? Where the key deliverables are a logo, three issues of a special project newsletter and death by PowerPoint on unsuspecting audiences? Where team members beg off with reassignments back to the real world? And where meetings get scrubbed in deference to National Egg Month, Fairy Godmother Week and Greenery Day in Japan.

It’s an experience backed by research carried out by authors Stewart Black and Hal Gregersen. They estimate that up to 80 per cent of change projects go off the rails and end badly. The culprit? A less than firm grasp on the fundamentals of change. The same research shows more than 80 per cent of organizations list leading change as one of the top five leadership competencies for the future and 85 per cent report their high potential leaders don’t exactly have this competency in spades.

According to the authors, there’s a fundamental process for driving strategic change. It starts with your organization successfully doing a great job of doing the right thing. But suddenly or slowly, your world changes. Customers want something else. Competitors offer something better. Technology changes the playing field. Governments change the rules of the game. What was once right is now wrong.

Now, you’re left doing a great job of doing the wrong thing.

Eventually, you see the light and start doing the new right thing but struggle early on and do a lousy job of it. With time and practice, you learn how to do a great job of doing the new right thing.

So what can go wrong? You’re up against three barriers in the all-too-common failures to see, move and finish. Folks fail to see the need to change. It’s still the days of wine and roses. "They often fail to see the need for change because they are blinded by the light of what they already see – the powerful mental maps that have worked well for them in the past."

Even when folks see the need, they fail to move. It’s not because they’re stupid or don’t get it. "People recognize that they cannot go directly and instantly from doing the old wrong thing well to doing the new right thing well," say the authors. "They understand that they will go from doing the wrong thing well to doing the right thing poorly.

"Given this brilliant insight, imagine from their perspective how silly a leader shouting for change might seem. People can now see how bad they will look doing the new right thing."

This may well be the most overlooked and common reason why change projects fail, say the authors.

And once folks see the need to change and start moving, many fail to finish. They won’t go far or fast enough. Change doesn’t happen overnight. And it’s exhausting work.

"People get tired because organizational transformation is fundamentally not about transforming the organization; it is about transforming the people who work in it.

If the people themselves don’t change, the wheels spin, and the strategic initiative gets zero traction."

If see, move and finish are the barriers, what are the solutions? The authors recommend contrast and confrontation to help folks clearly see the need for change.

"Changing entrenched mental maps requires a serious shock to the system." To get people moving, they need to believe there’s a path that will safely take them from doing the new right thing poorly to doing it well. This is where supports and rewards come in to play. Trust is also critical to get folks moving.

"If they trust you, they will venture forth and stay on the path. If they don’t, they won’t." Instead of rolling out pilot projects, go with a handful of launch sites and recruit change champions to reinforce desired behaviours.

Leaders play a key role. Any disconnect between what’s said and done will doom a project. So lead by example. "Lasting change starts from the inside out – by first changing individuals. In many cases, the first person to change is ourselves. We change individuals, ourselves and others, by remapping minds to see, move and finish. By changing individuals, we really can change organizations."

And if you’re looking to earn a king’s ransom and never find yourself lacking for work, learn how to lead folks through anticipatory change.

"From our extensive consulting work and research, the conclusion is clear: anticipatory change leaders are in great demand and extremely short supply."

Figure out how to get people seeing, moving and finishing while the sun’s still shining, the storm clouds aren’t gathering on the horizon and you have more time and flexibility to pull off change on your terms. "Without a passionate pursuit of the extraordinary, risks so typically and tightly tied to anticipatory change will likely win the day, and we will end up waiting and drifting down to reactionary change."

Published by

Jay Robb

I've reviewed more than 500 business books for the Hamilton Spectator since 1999 and worked in public relations since 1993.

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