Leading Change From The Middle: 4 Strategies For Successful Launch

You see the need for change in your organization. The waste (of money, time, energy, opportunities) grates on your soul. You’re convinced that there must be a better way, and you want to do something about it. How you begin is critical.

Any complex organization change effort is particularly fragile in its early formative stages. Much is at stake for you, your allies and the organization as a whole — the opportunity costs from a failed change initiative can be enormous. Not only the direct business benefits are at risk, but the loss of trust, energy, and credibility can become irreversible. If you fail this time, you might simply not have another chance.

As a changemaker “in the middle,” how do you begin a change initiative in your organization in way that ‘stacks the deck’ for success?

Below are several strategies that I have found particularly important in starting a successful change effort.

Go on a scouting mission

Effective, lasting change happens when people are committed to changing. As a scout, your mission is to find and fan the embers of commitment in others who are generally aligned with your change agenda.

Look for potential allies — including senior leaders and other potential changemakers — and learn what they are deeply committed to. What are their top priority challenges? Why do they care? If things were ideal in your company, what would be different?

You’re not trying to "sell" anything — yet. At this stage, it’s not about you and your idea — you’re looking for pockets of commitment. You are in an inquiry mode. It is also important to come from a place of authentic appreciation for what’s working well already. Authentic appreciation helps build deeper relationships — and growing relationships with leaders and changemakers throughout the organization is critical at this stage.

My partner, Bill Veltrop, emphasizes this formula for effective engagement:

  • Start with a conversation for relationship
  • Next a conversation for possibility
  • Then a conversation for opportunity
  • And finally a conversation for action

This may seem counter-intuitive to those who are action oriented, but I’ve found that this formula really works. Engaging deeply at each level strengthens the potential for meaningful movement at the next level.

You need partners and allies

Creating lasting organization-wide change is not a solo act. You’ll need partners, allies and co-creators of all kinds. You’ll need a lot of support. Taking the time and energy to build strong, trusting relationships with important players throughout the organization is one of the wisest investments you can make at this stage of the game. Plus, such relationships are enormously satisfying and fun, and often grow into lifelong friendships.

Educate yourself
(in generative approaches to change)

Leading systemic change is highly complex — primarily because it involves shifting an organization’s well-established cultural patterns of thinking and behavior. Our traditional programmatic, push-style, mechanistic approaches to change have an embarrassingly low success rate. This post explains why. It also describes a more promising alternative — what we refer to as “generative change.” We think that it is crucial for any changemaker to understand and deeply internalize the distinction between mechanistic and generative approaches. In addition to the above mentioned post, this page includes a collection of resources that can help further.

Lastly, it is very important to grow relationships with those select organization change practitioners who are committed to practicing generative approaches in their work.

(Personally, I cannot think of a better mentor in this regard than our own Bill Veltrop — a true pioneer, inventor and veteran of generative approaches to organizational learning and change.)

Understand the importance of “chrysalis work”

Einstein famously said, “Our problems cannot be solved from the same level of consciousness that created them.” Any systemic change involves the challenge of shifting old “business-as-usual” consciousness throughout the organization — its cultural patterns of thinking, behaving and working together.

Chrysalis work is meant to support this pattern-shifting process. It involves the design of special support structures (both social and physical) where individuals, groups and entire organizations are guided and assisted in doing the consciousness-raising and pattern-shifting work implicit in an organization-wide change effort.

Chrysalis work varies dramatically as a function of the size, complexity and nature of the group or organization involved. Co-creative Coaching Trios is one example of a chrysalis work structure that is well suited for individuals. When a larger community of changemakers is committed to embark on an action-learning journey of creating systemic change in their organization, our Changemaker Intensive could be a powerful first step. Lastly, our Project 10X approach is designed to provide chrysalis work support for a cohort of changemakers throughout the length of their action-learning journey of change.

In closing

The insights and strategies shared in this post do not provide a sure-fire 5-step formula for successful change. Given the uniqueness of every organization, situation and challenge, I doubt it is possible. Lasting organization-wide change is an inherently heuristic journey — an action-learning expedition to discover and embrace what really works for a particular organization. The design ideas above have been well tested in more than one successful change effort, and I hope they will support you well as you begin your journey.