The Myth of Directing Change

Change - Fall Leaves

When you think about the successful change efforts you’ve seen, either at work or in your personal life, have they been heroically directed or skilfully facilitated?  I thought of this when reading a recent Globe and Mail article. George Edwards, a leading political scientist at  Texas A&M University, asserts that part of the reason for Barack Obama’s current ‘lame duck status’ is an attempt to heroically direct change by using his personal intellect and charisma to sway public opinion and reshape the political landscape.

Instead, he suggests that a great leader is a facilitator of change,  understanding what is immutable and deftly exploiting opportunities within that container to move toward their long term vision.  In organizations too, leaders can over estimate the impact of their words and initial actions in effecting sustainable change in the organization. While leadership support is a critical ingredient in change, it is not in itself sufficient.

What Prof. Edwards is pointing to is a view of leadership that is partly based on our collective longing for great heroes, and also a partial view of what leaders do and are. An integrally informed, full span perspective sheds some light on the four key aspects of robust leadership.

Leadership is Driven by Awareness – It’s Personal

The capabilities of an individual leader, their charisma, their vision for the future and their persuasiveness in communicating their message to others are great assets.

Leadership is Driven by Action – It’s Behaviours

When a leader aligns their words and actions, they take the risk of going first, learning by doing and modeling the change they wish to see in the organization

Leadership is Driven by Collective – It’s Social

One person is rarely enough. Leaders learn how to engage with a variety of stakeholders, improve their inter-personal or dialogue skills, and turn naysayers into provocative, productive relationships.

Leadership is Driven by Context – It’s Systemic

No change is in isolation from its larger context. What are the impacts of the desired future on technology, other process, required investment, people’s roles and responsibilities?

Facilitating vs Directing Change

Directing change, of course, isn’t all bad. Directing change is often about telling or selling others on the best course of action.  Sometimes with room for additional participation by others. This works well when you have the necessary technical expertise to address the issue and the formal or tacit organizational authority to back it up. Directing change is essential in an emergency situation – we expect no less of first responders.

Facilitating change is required when things are volatile, uncertain, complex or ambiguous. When you have a long term picture of the vision but need to fill in the intermediate details. When it will affect others – some positively, some negatively – and their involvement is essential to implementation. In other words, most of the time, some element of facilitating change is needed in human systems.

So if you want to facilitate some kind of change in you or the world around you, what are some questions you can ask that will help you along? *

  • A container refers to large scale patterns that hold things together. This could be corporate structure, charismatic leaders, office space, key processes and measures, long term relationships. Which of these are a given – or unlikely to change? These become the bounds with which you can influence change. Which of these have recently changed or are likely to? These are levers for change.
  • Change can be scary, so identify what is not going to change.  This highlights the underlying DNA that will continue to be your backbone and which everyone can appreciate and rest solidly in. Identifying what is not going to change can motivate people and diminish issues of resistance.
  • Introducing a difference is what can change ‘the same old – same old’ pattern. What are one or two key differences you can introduce? These could be a new idea, new people, new skills, new measures, a change in a process or new process, new ways for people to meet and connect, highlighting new customers or new competitors. If you introduce too many new differences at once, they cannot be absorbed. If you introduce not enough difference,  no change can get started. What is the optimal difference in your situation?
  • Exchanging information and communication is like the lifeblood of any organization or human system. These exchanges can be informal chats, team meetings, measurement or reward systems, funding or budget allocations. What current exchange patterns can you use to introduce your change? What new exchange methods – among people and among processes – will be needed to support the change?

And for all of us as change agents – at work or at home – how do we hold all this? May I suggest with a combination of boldness and humility. Recognizing what we can change, what we can’t – at least right now – and the wisdom to know the difference. More on this paradox in the next post!


* G. H. Eoyang and R. J Holladay, Adaptive Action, 2013

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