HomeChange ManagementAre your people ready for change? How to lead through successful organisational change  

Are your people ready for change? How to lead through successful organisational change  

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We are awash with advice from experts, thought leaders, consultants, former leaders, academics and more on how to manage, navigate, deliver, overcome, drive, wrangle and ultimately lead change successfully.

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Steve Hearsum

We are awash with advice from experts, thought leaders, consultants, former leaders, academics and more on how to manage, navigate, deliver, overcome, drive, wrangle and ultimately lead change successfully. We are told that 70% of change initiatives fail, further fuelling the anxiety of leaders, which is ironic given that statistic is a myth, and seems to serve no other purpose than to increase the anxiety of leaders. This in turn drives them into the arms of consultancies and solutions providers who hover at the entrance to board rooms peddling tools and methodologies that promise to make the pain go away.  

Much of the language around change colludes with the idea that we have more control than we do. It is only because we have successfully turned change into an abstraction, a thing, that we can say we have the ability to deliver/drive/manage ‘it’, which I have often noticed is the type of language that evokes cynicism on the part of those being ‘delivered’, ‘driven’, ‘managed’ etc. Into that mix goes the fact that I have rarely, if ever, met people who say that change is well led in their organisations which is ironic.  

It’s part of the day job 

It has always struck me as odd that ‘leading change’ has been separated out from the rest of the work of leadership. It is not as if there are a multitude of programmes aimed at helping leaders to ‘successfully deliver stability’, or ‘become a great BAU leader’. My hypothesis is that we all know, really, that change is part and parcel of leading in organisations, but to accept this means embracing the fact we are responsible for something we have less control over than we would like to admit. 

This is in no small part down to the ‘myth of fixability’ (Cole & Higgins, 2023), the idea that we have more agency than we actually do, when faced with messy reality. It is a form of laziness in part underpinned by assumptions about the nature of change. We see this in responses to complex challenges such as climate change, pandemics and Brexit, the latter offering the perfect example with Boris Johnson’s promise of an ‘oven-ready deal’.  

Who, exactly, do we need to make sure is change ready? 

Which brings us to the readiness bit. It’s all well and good asking whether people are ready for change, but what gets overlooked is whether those leading both specific change initiatives and an organisation itself are in and of themselves ready. Then there is the question of what exactly ‘change readiness’ is. As the Project Management Institute note:  

“…there is little clarity on the ways to judge organizational change readiness… ‘readiness’ is a highly subjective term—subjective in scope, subjective in degree, and subjective in the eye of the beholder. What and who needs to be ready? How ready is ready enough? And whose viewpoint should be used when judging readiness?”  

In other words, what one organisation prioritizes as readiness may be having access to a methodology e.g. Prosci. Another may focus on the behaviour of senior leaders in modelling change. Another still on ensuring that anxiety is appropriately contained. Another on centres of change excellence. And so on. 

How to lead in this context 

Many leadership theories purport to offer a blueprint for success or a silver bullet when it comes to leading change. Given that humans have been wrestling with how to lead others through change for centuries, it seems a fairer question to ask: what are the things that we might best pay attention to, if we are to increase the chances of success? My sense is that there is a short list of things that you ignore at your peril, if you want to maximize the chances of leading change successfully, and is informed by both my research and thirty years of working in and around organisational change, which on occasions has felt like unintentional rubbernecking… 

The ask  

  1. Get clear on the question you are trying to answer – you’d be surprised how many organisations do not. 
  1. What will you see/hear/feel in e.g. a year, that will tell you said change has been successful, or is heading in the right direction? 
  1. Model it – I have lost count of the number of times I have seen change initiatives fail due to senior leaders neglecting to model what they expect others to do or be. 
  1. Acknowledge and attend to anxiety – your own and that of your people. In change, particularly restructuring, what contained anxiety is often pulled apart. How will you ensure that is replaced? 
  1. In terms of your individual leadership: 
  • Develop your reflexivity – the ability to notice your own beliefs, judgments and practices and what influences these (e.g. psychological, social and systemic factors)  
  • Cultivate a both/and mindset – when all around are asking for either/or, yes/no, or stop/start binary responses, getting comfy with not knowing requires the ability to see and hold nuanced positions.  
  • Ask questions – especially when you are amid the unknown. That is place for sensing and responding, not heroic leadership. 
  • Experiment – and be prepared to fail and learn. If you do not know what is going on or what to do, to expect to be right as a default it an absurdity.  

Change, particularly culture change, is everybody’s responsibility. To change a whole system, you need everyone involved, or at the very least a representative of every part of the system. This requires leaders to both let go of their need to be in control and accept they may not know everything or have all the answers. This is a muscle that needs to be intentionally worked. 

None of the above guarantees success, and I contend they are both more realistic and talk to the essential relationality of organisations. Deny that, and you are stuffed. 

Steve Hearsum is an experienced consultant, supervisor and developer of change practitioners, the founder of Edge + Stretch and the author of No Silver Bullet: Bursting the bubble of the organisational quick fix (out now). 


Cole, M. & Higgins, J. 2023. The Great Unheard at Work: Understanding voice and silence in organisations. Abingdon, Oxon & New York, NY: Routledge

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