A large UK retailer faced a big challenge. They were unable to deliver large scale IT change programmes. They analysed all IT change programmes costing £5m or more to identify any factors they could correlate with this failure: a lack of clarity around the requirements? Project timeline wrong? Benefits case issues?

They considered 13 different dimensions, with the aim of identifying a set of factors that contributed to failure. The business would then develop leadership capability and governance to spot these things and design them out using a specially developed set of tools.

The business found that projects were consistently successful where the change leadership ‘character’ was right.

The retail giant had vastly overestimated the number of people who could deliver complex cross-functional change programmes.

As one ex-CIO told us: “We can all learn to play tennis at a high level, but we cannot all compete at Wimbledon.”

And this is the trap that many organisations fall into.

They think anyone can learn to do complex change.

What is a change leadership character? 

1. The ability to deal with the irrational.

We know business transformation involves as many irrational elements as rational elements e.g. dealing with stakeholders, politics, conflicting agendas; people who shy away from conflict will not make great change leaders. Many lack the ‘character’ needed to navigate the irrational elements.

2. Instinct.

A good change leader is not the same as a good senior director. Leading a large function is different to creating a good new organisational structure. Change leaders will know when to make you feel uncomfortable, they are driven, challenging, ‘in-your-face’ types. People who are good with change are generally uncompromising and hard work. At the same time, they understand when building a coalition and being pragmatic is the right thing to do.

3. Vision and values.

Change leaders have unwavering vision, they religiously drive through the transformation agenda and they create an operating culture based on new values. They are not necessarily great communicators, nor presidential in their style, but what they say inspires and energises. They just ‘get it’.

And if ever there was a call for organisations to be really clear on how much change leadership they have in the organisation, it is now. While new more nimble entrants appear on the scene, those whose size and agility means they can defy organisational logic, larger organisations are facing a crisis. It is happening to most – large-scale misalignment is occurring within organisations, resulting in major upheavals. The need to reinvent or shrink is more important now than ever. That or risk going bust or being taken over.

We know there is no one single improvement that can be made to business transformation projects to make the difference between success and failure. Our research shows however that you are more likely to succeed in a transformation when the change leadership ‘character’ is right.

If it sounds nebulous, well maybe that’s because it is. But for many senior leaders, leadership itself is still a philosophical concept.

Image (c) Shutterstock | Mikael Damkier

Sian Dodd
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