There are thousands of studies and books on managing change or leading change. The former tend to focus on ways to work with and overcome people’s resistance; the latter on creating a vision that people can sign up to and engage with. Of course, both these perspectives are important and indeed implementing change usually requires both.


However, most of the change that happens to people, organisations and societies is neither managed nor led – it just happens to us. Sometimes the impact is desirable; other times not. In reality, managing or leading change is largely an illusion – at best, we exert control over a very small proportion of the change that is happening around us. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try, nor that we can’t be successful, but effective change leadership requires a recognition that change is not a linear process. It takes place mainly within complex, adaptive systems and therefore requires very different ways of thinking, planning and decision-making that are:


  • More enabling and less controlling – releasing the energy of other people to make things happen. For example, in our research into talent management, a clear conclusion is that spending resources on trying to identify talent from above is a waste of time, compared with creating opportunities for talent to emerge of its own volition.
  • More flexible and opportunity-led – with greater emphasis on evolving scenarios than fixed plans
  • More involving. For example, in many organizations, innovation and change are increasingly generated within virtual networks, in which leaders share their current concerns and people anywhere in the organisation have an opportunity to contribute. Indeed, the key functions of leadership itself (identifying what needs to change, coming up with practical change solutions and creating/ implementing the resources to implement those solutions) are increasingly moving out of the C-suite and into the networked environment.
  • More aware of the large impact that small changes in one area can have in others. Almost impossible to predict, by the sheer complexity of the interlinkages, the only defence leaders have is to ensure they are hyper-aware of small changes and that risk management is a core skill at every level of management.


From our workshops and interviews with leaders around the world, and from the growing literature on leading systemic change, we have been able to identify some of the keys to managing and leading change in a complex systems environment. These include:


  • Balance focus on both short-term and long term. A critical question for all change leaders is “What is the long-term impact of the short-term decisions we make?”. And, of course, vice versa – “What is the short-term and medium-term impact of the long-term decisions we make?” The more connections we see, the greater our potential to influence positively. Leaders typically spend less than 10% of their time thinking strategically. A healthier balance would be one third strategic, one-third operation and one third in the space between.
  • Address your own and other people’s attitudes towards change. Leaders tend to be significantly over-positive about their own appetite for change and their own capacity for change. A powerful question here is: “What change scenarios attract and energise me, and which do I feel reluctant about?” A contributing factor here is that when faced with evidence that the world is not as we would like it to be, we tend to discount the evidence, or simply tune it out. A key concept in employee communication is receptivity – the degree to which people are motivated to attend to or ignore information they receive. Before embarking on any programme of change that requires people’s co-operation, it’s essential to establish their receptivity. If it is not positive, then subtle or not so subtle resistance is inevitable. If it’s positive, you can take a much less directive approach than normal, effectively pointing them in the right direction, providing the support they need, and letting them get on with it.
  • Go with the energy. When people work on tasks that energise them, they are more productive, more creative, and more collaborative. Instead of trying to create talent pools (which have a pretty poor record of success), leaders can do better by seeking out where the energy lies. All too often the greatest reserves of energy in an organisation are buried under thick strata of hierarchy, status, policy and uninspired supervision/leadership. In creating project teams to manage change, it’s normal to appoint people on the criteria of specific experience, hierarchical level and so on. But these people may not have great appetite for change. Asking “Who has the energy to make this happen?” may reveal very different candidates for inclusion.
  • First change yourself. It’s easy to see change as something mainly for other people. Once the decision is off the leader’s desk, it can be forgotten about. But, particularly when change has a cultural dimension, people look for symbols and role models. If a new set of behaviours or perspectives is important, then leaders have to symbolise them. In effect, this means a certain amount of exaggeration, for two reasons: firstly, because other people tend to observe you through the filter of their existing expectations (so they discount contrary behaviour as an exception to the rule); and secondly, because, as already noted, leaders overestimate how easy it will be for them to achieve behavioural change. In practice, for a leader to change behaviours is much harder than for someone lower in the hierarchy, because the drive to sustain different ways of thinking and behaving has to come mainly from within, rather than from a balance of internal and external pressures.
  • Be generationally and diversity aware. It’s easy to assume that the motivations and perspectives of the people around you are representative. They may well be, but only of a small sub-system within larger systems. Spend time talking to – and more important, listening to – people, who are likely to have a very different view of what’s important and why.
  • Develop sensitivity for memes. Memes are “ideas with attitude” – powerful concepts or perceptions that seem to come from nowhere, but which have a significant impact on how people view aspects of the world around them. Leaders, who want to be ahead of change, need to be aware of the topography of potentially influential ideas and especially those that challenge the status quo. These may be societal or technological, internal to the organisation or external. Whenever a meme appears to be gaining traction, leaders can ask themselves and other people: “What are the implications if this becomes accepted?”
  • Humility. Effective leaders of systemic change have the courage and self-knowledge to be open to criticism of their ideas and opinions. They don’t want to bend with every wind that blows, but they do need regularly to ask:
    • “What am I missing?”
    • “What if I’m wrong?
    • “What if my perspective on this is out of date?”
  • Speed up the cycle of Plan-Do-Observe-Reflect. When a change programme has multiple components, each may at any time be at a different, overlapping point in this cycle. Those responsible for each component must have responsibility for communicating with each other – constantly — so that the deviations from plan in one area don’t cause much larger oscillations in others.
  • Make sure that small, localised changes are clearly linked into the bigger change themes. People will often accept minor inconveniences in their own area of work, if they can see how, by doing so, they are helping to achieve something bigger and more meaningful. (That is meaningful both to them and to a wider cause.)
  • Above all, choose your battleground. Given that you have only limited ability to bring about positive change, it makes sense to target your efforts on what’s most important. A useful question here is “What do we need to change to be sure we will still be in business in 10 years’ time?”


The good news is that change is more complicated for everyone. So even a partial move towards more systemic thinking can result in competitive advantage. The bad news is that many organisations are still selecting leadership talent on the basis of linear thinking – so the skills of leading systemic change may remain a scarce commodity!




© David Clutterbuck, 2015




This entry was posted in Blogs, Featured Blogs and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.