4 Solutions: Leadership in Times of Organizational Change

4 Solutions: Leadership in Times of Organizational Change

Robert Steven Kaplan, a Martin Marshall Professor of Management Practice in Business Administration at Harvard, realized very quickly he was saying the obvious.

In CIO Talk Network’s most recent show on “How to Manage Closure as a Leader,” he reiterated several times over the need to communicate how to add value and competencies when going through a period of organizational change. Even his peer on the show, Keith Zecchini, the Global CIO of Parsons Brinckerhoff, called this need to keep employees engaged and delivering on tasks “Management 101.”

So why say it? “Very frequently, people don’t do the obvious,” Kaplan said. “Why don’t they?”

If we immediately knew the answer to that question, we wouldn’t need to do three shows on How to Manage Beginnings, Transitions and Closure as a Leader, but it’s such a constant challenge and stage in every leader’s career that it felt like a necessity to explore all three stages in depth.

As Kaplan said, a great leader follows through on the obvious questions because those are the things that most need to get done. “Could the people on your team pass a quiz on what your top three priorities are? You might be surprised,” Kaplan said.

Granted, in talking about beginnings, transitions and closures, that’s a lot of ground to cover. And yet all three are intrinsically related. Each of our seven guests over three shows, despite talking on different topics, touched on universal leadership guidelines when going through any sort of change. Maybe these sound obvious, but they’re supposed to.

Know Why You’re Doing What You’re Doing

“Everything that a leader does needs to lead to adding value and building competencies,” Kaplan said. “If you don’t constantly communicate how you add value and competencies, then these closures can become very traumatic.

Kaplan’s point applies more broadly than just to closures. Does this change in a program actually make sense, and is it actually likely to be adopted by the business? As a leader, you have to be able to see the forest through the trees and make sure a new beginning, transition or closure has a value to the organization as a whole.

“Let’s make sure we’re not making this about the department,” says Susan Cramm, the President of Valuedance on our show on Beginnings. “Let’s make this about the customer and understand and articulate the reality of the people listening to the communication.”

But beyond just finding value, you have to make sure you’re staying the course and have the flexibility to not veer off track. Colin Boyd, the VP and CIO of Johnson Controls, asked during our show on Transitions if there is anything that could invalidate our course? “Sometimes, technology shifts, and you’ve got to make a complete U-Turn. You have to have the courage to make a big change when it’s needed.”

Everything Changes; Be Sure to Know When

There’s an idea in business today that Chris Moore, the CIO of the City of Edmonton, Canada, calls “change fatigue.” Change, as he says, is the new normal. Change has become a constant, and often, leaders and organizations aren’t ready to adapt when they need to.

“When you see people hiding behind process or see that the organization is not willing to change, that’s the time you need to realize that you need to do something,” says James Sills III, the Cabinet Secretary and CIO of the State of Delaware. “It’s important that you evolve your staff early, take a little more risk and accommodate change to see how it would affect the organization.”

Kaplan suggests setting a timetable at the very beginning, keeping in mind start, middle and end stages in the process and having criteria established to recognize those stages when they arrive. “Evaluate as you go, but don’t doubt your position,” Moore adds.

Having that ambiguity, being unable to pull the trigger and not keeping discipline in finishing or transitioning is exactly what keeps organizations from ultimately moving on. “You may spend a lot of resources you can’t afford if you don’t close things down when you need to. Finally you just have to negotiate an agreement, finish it and say, ‘let’s move,’” Kaplan said. “It could be that by the time you catch it, it could be very traumatic and will disrupt people’s lives.”

What If, and I know this sounds kooky we communicated with the employees

Get out of the Ivory Tower, and Speak the Same Language

“Leaders talk in boilerplate. They’re talking, but no one understands what they’re saying. Company culture and leadership is very important in this regard.” – Robert Kaplan. “When there isn’t the same understanding, there’s ambiguity. People don’t hear the same even though we speak the same language.” – Jim Smith, Office of Technology in the State of Maine

“The first thing a leader has to do is get over themselves. We get trapped in our processes and priority list. As a leader, pull yourself out and develop a new way of looking at how your business is responding to the market.” – Susan Cramm

Does anyone notice a pattern here? Leaders have a bad habit of putting themselves above their staff as they go through a period of change, when often the people who first recognize the need for a change are the people working with a program most closely. They’re the ones, as Kaplan says, who will recognize when there’s a problem and when a product is becoming superfluous.

Communication then is key, but demonstrating the ROI to your staff may not explain how a person’s day-to-day work is going to change and why that matters. Management has to be able to get down on IT’s level, and CIOs have to be able to push back against the business leaders if they detect a problem or challenge.

“If there’s confusion at the top, then you could get a lot of dysfunctional behavior,” Kaplan said. “It may not even be malicious. It’s brought on by fear. I’m more worried about unintentional dysfunctional behavior because of poor management. That’s a self-inflicted wound.”

“Try to keep the IT community connected to the outside world. People are interested in this stuff, and they want to know where the benefit to their hard work is being placed,” Boyd added. “IT is not sitting in an ivory tower. Connect the business back to IT.”

Things are Going to get Messy

There are five stages of grief and loss:

    1. shock
    2. fear
    3. anger
    4. denial and
    5. negotiating.

Believe it or not, Smith said on the Transitions show that they apply to business. “Once you know where people are in that process, you can help manage it. People can be their own obstacle.”

How do you manage these obstacles? The same as any others, and the answer is a hybrid of statements from all three shows. Boyd says there will be winners and losers with any change, Zecchini says it’s important to work through those changes to the finish line, and Cramm says that you must apply this change such that it has the biggest impact.

“It’s going to be messy,” Cramm said. “Think very deeply about what needs to occur and why so that you can create a structure and only change the things you need to change.”

That’s the goal. Things need to change, and hopefully we can simplify things, but more often, programs will become a complex mess. But Zecchini added one of the most important things to always remember. “There’s no problem we cannot make bigger, so it’s our job to focus on what’s right ahead, but always keeping in mind that things will come to a close.”

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Robert Steven Kaplan

Robert Steven Kaplan, Martin Marshall Professor of Management Practice in Business Administration, Senior Associate Dean for External Relations, Harvard Business School

Robert S. Kaplan is the Martin Marshall Professor of Management Practice in Business Administration and Senior Associate Dean for External Relations. He is also co-chairman of Draper Richards Kaplan Foundation, a global venture philanthropy... More   View all posts


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Robert Steven Kaplan


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