Five reads you need to manage change
09 January 2021
By Maja Korica
The literature on change management is so vast that it’s often difficult to see the wood for the trees.
What future should we seek to orient ourselves around? Once this is decided, who should be in the driving seat? Are we supposed to drive change top-down or bottom-up, and when? How can we make dual strategies operational? And what about communication, or resistance? Is change management different to ‘just’ management? Is it leadership that’s needed instead?
Often the answers to these questions come in easy prescriptions: do this, don’t do that (though those aren’t always consistent). The space heaves under the weight of countless models, all promising to simplify and universalise the exceedingly difficult and specific. In doing so, they distract managers and employees from the real challenge: asking questions and reconsidering assumptions.
These five reads are key features of my Executive MBA module Management of Change. I teach them precisely because they challenge accepted, though flawed, wisdoms – for the benefit of managers and employees alike.
1 Decoding Resistance to Change
By Jeffrey Ford and Laurie Ford. Harvard Business Review, April 2009.
Given that the reality of organisational change is one of likely failure, no wonder there is usually plenty of blame flying around. One customary culprit is resistance – either self-serving or an echo of a deeper malaise: people just don’t like change.
There is plenty wrong with such assumptions. Firstly, it is an issue to brand staff as resistors after a question or critique results in a self-fulfilling prophecy: you get what you’ve asked for.
Secondly, it encourages stubborn persistence, which an ‘us-versus-them’ dynamic can make worse. Instead, Ford and Ford advocate flipping the switch and seeing resistance as valuable feedback, which can make the change better, and your work far easier too.
2 Learning When to Stop Momentum
By Michelle Barton and Kathleen Sutcliffe. MIT Sloan Management Review, Spring 2010.
The literature on change management seems obsessed with speed: see canonical models like John Kotter’s (Step 1: Create Urgency). Either move fast or lose out.
This has obvious downsides, particularly in situations that throw brand-new challenges at us. Here, the risk is we respond quickly in the way we always have, then double down despite feedback from the environment.
This creates what Barton and Sutcliffe call dysfunctional momentum. Though their research is on firefighters tackling uncharacteristic fires, the relevance to corporate contexts and leaders is clear: pause, engage others and create structures that help you reconsider before it’s too late. A must read.
3 Get the Boss to Buy In
By Susan Ashford and James Detert. Harvard Business Review, January– February 2015.
Another traditional (and wrong) assumption is that senior leaders think, while staff do. As such, most practical models are aimed at the top.
Ashford and Detert recognise instead that good ideas exist everywhere, though they don’t necessarily come with the same legitimacy. Staff hold valuable insights, which could trigger meaningful organisational change – if they are listened to.
This paper gives a detailed and helpful guide for how to achieve exactly that, advocating critical actions like understanding wider strategic needs, investigating senior leaders’ preferences and considering how joining your idea with other issues could help your pitch lead to change.
4 Rocking the Boat
By Debra Meyerson. Published by Harvard Business School Press.
Let’s be honest: as much as we hear about change, inertia often reigns, including among senior leaders. Organisations are also social domains: X is who we are, so Y is how things stay.
Debra Meyerson’s book is a godsend for people who find themselves losing hope. She focuses on ‘tempered radicals’. These are individuals who start from themselves and act their way into change.
Want a better work– life balance? Start actively leaving the office at 5pm each day. Such individuals become models for others to see that a different approach is possible, and can be better. From small changes come great ones.
5 Working Identity
By Herminia Ibarra. Published by Harvard Business School Press.
All organisational change is also personal change. It may require a different approach by leaders and result in different tasks or even jobs by those on the receiving end.
Ibarra’s book is vital for anyone undergoing a transition, be it a career one, a job one, or a ‘What am I doing with my life?’ one. For those in such situations, it is one to read, re-read and cherish.
For those managing change, in turn, it acts as an important reminder that this is the challenge those experiencing change likely face – so show understanding and give support while you can.