The Art of Change

Leading Change Series - Part I

Leaders and formations in the Army are always changing. With this change in people, comes a new look at the organization. It brings reinvention, breeding adaptability and innovation. Change is healthy, important, and necessary – but leading change also requires art. Dissatisfaction, contempt, and failure, are usually the drivers of change. But, that doesn’t mean everyone in the organization will view circumstances through that same lens. Change is disequilibrium caused by disconfirming information. Kurt Lewin’s Change Theory and John Kotter’s 8 Step Change Model, provide leaders a lens through which to view and understand what it takes to successfully lead change.

Maintaining the status quo is comfortable. Leading change requires getting down “in the mud” – are you up for the task?

Kurt Lewin was a social, organizational, and applied psychologist who hypothesized that change takes place in three steps:

  1. Unfreezing. Survival instincts take over and the organization or individual realizes change is necessary.
  2. Change. The organization or individual attaches to the new system as a way of improving.
  3. Freezing. The organization or individual solidifies the change and finds comfort in a new norm.

Lewin’s Three-Stage Process of Change

Lewin’s theory begins with the same factors mentioned above: discomfort, dissatisfaction, and threat or fear for survival. In theory, change is clear – but in practice it is emotional and uncomfortable. Change isn’t necessarily a condemnation of how things were done, nor a disservice to those leaders who came before. Leaders require skills in the art of organizational change to help people understand that evolution is necessary.

Panic or Adjust: Recognizing the Need for Change

Discontent is the leading cause of change, but not everyone in the organization need share this discontent. We breed this “discontent” or driver for change in the Army through changes in leadership. With new leaders comes a new perspective on the organization or problem. It is then that the leader faces three fundamental barriers to their proposed change: see, move, and finish. These are quite similar to Lewin’s unfreeze, change, and freeze. Organizations often fall somewhere within three areas of shortcoming:

  1. They fail to see the need for change.
  2. When they see the need, they fail to move.
  3. When they finally move, the don’t do so fast or far enough to finish.

“Vision, communication, passion, empowerment; these are the things that win the hearts first, then the minds of men.” -Dr. John Kotter

As far as clichés go, “admitting you have a problem is the first step,” is widely applicable. Survival Anxiety is a critical aspect to creating change. Without the recognized need for change, organizations will rarely withstand the discomfort caused by changing. Without a John Kotter’s “sense of urgency“ or a common experience that communicates the need to change, unity of effort will be limited to transactional followership.

We are naturally creatures of comfort. We seek security in the status quo. Static organizations focus on their past success, failing to see the loss of efficiency or effectiveness created by changing conditions. Times and conditions change, and so we as organizations need to embrace the process of changing and reinventing ourselves. One dimensional leaders react to this reality with panic, failing to adapt and allowing the organization to crumble. Dynamic leaders keep the organization focused on their core values. They create a culture that celebrates learning, adapting, and recreating itself. If you do not replace yourself, someone else will.

Image result for Learning Organization

Change is scary. You may not want to admit it, but we naturally try to avoid change. Most leaders fail to recognize this reluctance – especially when they are outside executives that are new to the organization – and see the organization as a mechanical paradigm rather than an agricultural one. Organizations are living, breathing things. People make up organizations – people that learn, change, and grow. Fixing cultural issues in an organization is not as simple as swapping out parts. It is not simply mechanical. Machines do not fear change; people do.

In Part II, we will discuss how leaders combat organizational fear by creating safety in change. In the meantime, please join the dialogue on Twitter and Facebook with #LeadingChange. What are ways and times you have seen organizational change work? Not work?

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