When change is changing


June 2019

Download the article


Heraclitus once said "The only thing that is constant is change.” One could argue that today, even more so than ever. We live in a world of constant change and complexity, which is increasingly challenging organisations in terms of operational structures, the leaders’ role within alternative structures, and how this influences the distribution of decision-making as the organisation undergoes changes.

Many organisations ask us the key question: “How might we continuously work with and plan for change when everything is constantly changing around us?” or put differently: “How can we as organisations plan and cater for the predictable unpredictable?”.

The key components that must stand taller than all others when it comes to organisational changes are and will continue to be effect and impact. However, lately, academics and practitioners seem to share the perception that organisations and their leaders face increasing volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity. These environmental VUCA conditions, as the U.S. army paraphrase it, are pressuring organisations to shift away from relying on the traditional bureaucratic and hierarchical architectures towards being flatter and more network-based. But if today’s organisations do not reflect the new ways of organising, which the VUCA world requires, it is no surprise that they continuously struggle to obtain the desired effect and impact of a change process.

De facto, it is common knowledge that over 70% of all projects fail to achieve the impact that was desired from the outset and described in the business case. What consequences does this have? Project managers set out to design additional workstreams in their projects to cater for the missing impact. Change management is one. Change communication another. Stakeholder management sometimes a third. All such initiatives are directed towards “the people side of the project” to help the organisation adapt to changes faster and better. Yet, these initiatives often result in an overreliance upon predefined tools, structures and concrete plans in the hope that these will result in successful implementation of the changes.

We are in a time of transition

The enigma presented above can be explained by the fact that we are in the middle of a transition phase, where two parallel approaches to perceiving and leading organisational change are co-existing. Many organisations continue to call for a structural approach to change management where operational and concrete tools play a key role, and where change management is often seen as a separate workstream or project track. Yet simultaneously, many organisations acknowledge that change is a constant, making it insufficient or even futile to plan or manage organisational changes sequentially or through predefined tools and templates.

The issue with this overreliance is that leaders are too occupied with knowing what tools to apply at the expense of knowing how to apply them. It can be argued that the more complex the environment is, the more leaders must develop their ability to think in systemic and strategic ways as well as collaborate with stakeholders who hold varying perspectives of reality. It is only by increasing their ability to make sense of the VUCA environment they face that leaders will know how to appropriately apply the relevant tools. In turn, this requires that leaders master skills like agile working methods, reflective and contextual awareness, self-awareness and, evidently, the courage to do it all differently.

However, and here is the tricky part, most organisations are themselves in this transition and must therefore embrace both sides of the scale. Not only do they need to understand that change happens in parallel, they also need to manage and lead change in parallel.

Hence, with this article, we aim to provide a common and varied view on how leaders of organisations can lead changes in parallel when change is, in itself, changing.

Before moving any further, let us dwell a little bit on the phrase change in parallel. Change in parallel is a term that has gained momentum in recent decades. It emphasises the continuous changing environment that organisations and humans operate within, in which a new change process is initiated, before another one is finalised. Thus, change happens in parallel in a never-ending change loop. This may also very well be a critical reason as to why so many organisations experience difficulties obtaining the desired effect and impact of their many planned organisational changes.

When the universal rule is that change processes happen in parallel, the same rule should apply for the way we manage and lead change. Conclusively, organisations and leaders need to take on different change approaches depending on the specific change process at hand and in accordance with the context within which it occurs. Yet many organisations still apply the same change approach – often based on a predefined, standardised project model used throughout the organisation’s change processes – regardless of the form, scope or context of the change. This results in a lack of change capabilities to navigate in a complex change environment.

The above discussion calls for a thorough analysis of the tools at hand and how their application by leaders of change processes differ depending on the context in which the change occurs. To what extent can traditional tools from change management be applied in a context calling for agile approaches to understanding and leading change? In the section that follows, this question is addressed by analysing the extent to which the structural and agile approaches to leading change result in differing applications of Implement’s change toolbox.

The structural vs agile approaches to change management

Zooming in on how to lead change in organisations, we in Implement have developed a change framework that captures the essential activities required in organisations to create a best-in-class change capacity. Our aim is to provide organisations and employees with reflections and approaches in four main areas addressing change:

  • Change strategy: How to prepare in order to successfully support and drive change?
  • Leading change: How to execute change projects by supporting the leaders in the journey?
  • Engaging stakeholders: How to involve the right people at the right time?
  • Sustainability: How to create a sustainable change environment?

The change framework is supported by concrete tools – all dynamic and scalable to fit the specific change. As we all know: No change is the same. Hence, no size fits all.

First main area: Change strategy

Ambitious organisations set the scene for the change from the beginning of the change process by defining the impact of the change and assessing how the change will affect the organisation.

Often, these exclusive discussions have been for the very few at the top of the organisation, and when the time seems right, the next level of leaders have been taken under oath to drive the change and bring the change to live amongst the employees who will then be expected to conduct their work in perhaps a whole new way.

For this situation to become less exposed to failure, top level management need to take a step back and make early room for involvement and communication with employees and first line managers who can bring in different perspectives on the change. This can be done by analysing the implications and level of impact that the proposed change will have on the business. By involving the right employees and/or leaders early in the change process, organisations get a more precise view on how the change will actually impact the organisation – not only in terms of the most obvious parameters such as systems, processes or competences, but also in terms of what behaviour is needed in the organisation to harvest the desired benefits of the change.

As stated in the very beginning of this article, the key components of organisational changes are effect and impact. Most initiatives, projects and ideas get designed for all the right reasons. However, when it comes to realising the benefits and adopting the necessary new behaviour to do so, many organisations continue to reach for more structure, concrete plans and predefined tools, hoping that this will help them towards a successful implementation of the change.

By analysing the impact (both behavioural and business impact) of the change from the beginning and involving the right people to do so, the foundation for successful change increases profoundly and at the same time provides valuable input to what change initiatives are needed going forward.

Setting the scene for the change by analysing its impact is a prerequisite in the beginning of any change process. But the journey does not stop here. Top leaders and anyone involved in the change process need to acknowledge that change is changing, and what have been identified as key impact parameters in the beginning of the change process might change and turn out to be something else as the change progresses. Talking about the impact is therefore no single “one-time” activity or task but rather an ongoing activity throughout the entire change process.

A preferred tool and framework to address this issue could be the impact case. Based on a traditional goal hierarchy, the impact case carries forward the idea of linking the impact to the project vision and not only identifying the business impact and benefits but also the behavioural changes that must take place for the change to be a success.

In a structural approach, we would facilitate this impact case discussion with senior/top managers and create ownership and sponsorship through this workshop. It would also involve setting up a professional KPI/pulse check to govern it and to ensure that we reach the highest possible impact. The impact case lives and breathes in the PMO.

In an agile approach, we would facilitate the impact case together with the leaders and their employees in their local business environment. We would help them translate the blueprint of the impact case to what the local impact is for their specific part of the organisation. We would help them be better leaders by providing them with translation and local sensemaking in their context to facilitate meaningful conversations about the change with their employees. Thus, as a supplement to one overall impact case, we have local versions that are alive, breathing and growing within the organisation.

Second main area: Leading change

Leaders are continuously playing a significant role in implementing changes. Leaders’ actions and dialogues determine the culture and priorities of the change. By building change leadership capabilities and designing leadership behaviour around the change, we support and help the leaders to translate the programme deliverables to their own business unit and create their local fit.

Leaders are critical in building support for new initiatives. This is especially the case for first line leaders as they are close to the employees and set the tone in daily operations. However, the entire leadership structure and their shared understanding of the importance for the change to happen is crucial to how likely it is for the change to be a success and bring along the desired effect and impact.

A key leading change focus area is changing the conversations about the change, because what the leaders talk about, determines the culture and priorities of all employees.

A preferred key point we want to stress here is that leaders must increase their vocabulary and narrative around the change. Leaders must understand that “the inconvenient truth about change management” is that employees listen to what resonates with them and what they are personally worried about throughout the change. Not what management think they should be worried about.

In a structural approach, we would help write the key messages together with the senior leaders. Train them in communicating the “change elevator pitch”, identify the pros and cons of today’s situation and the future situation. Identify the burning platform and the desired vision. And we would help the leaders foresee potential reactions to change and analyse how to handle them. We call it “Double-entry Bookkeeping”, and the model includes four steps in a fixed structure:

  1. What are we doing today that works really well and which we have to make sure we will keep in the future?
  2. What will be challenging on our journey towards our desired future?
  3. What is not sufficiently good today about the way we work?
  4. What will be better in our desired future?

Establishing this picture helps to facilitate an open dialogue regarding the price of the proposed change and at the same time acknowledging what works today and what will be a potential struggle in the future.

In an agile approach, we would integrate the leaders’ communication pitch and help leaders build the pitch into a dialogue. Then it would be turned into a conversation which would help the leaders have curious conversations about different perspectives on the change. In this way, leaders would be helped to pose and ask curious questions, listen with an appreciative inquiry position and frame the change so that the reactions which the leaders meet and experience during the change project will be met with a real willingness to take into account how the change is experienced from the employee’s perspective.

Questions to be posed could be the exact same as listed in the above-mentioned “Double Bookkeeping” tool. But instead of analysing, hypothesising and imagining how employees and end users will react to the change, we have leaders pose the questions in real life – at a real meeting with real employees having real experiences with the change. We ask leaders to carry a conversation on change. That way, every single one of the leaders get first-hand feedback on how the change is perceived and will be able to adapt and lead the change in a more agile way with faster feedback loops.

Third main area: Engaging stakeholders

The key to any successful change process is engaging the right people at the right time. Creating importance and buy-in from relevant employees and leaders. Both addressing the people that will be affected by the change like the employees in a reorganisation or end users of a new system, but also the people that have the power (formal or informal) to affect the change. In matrix organisations, we often see that this specific discipline of involving and engaging stakeholders can be the most time-consuming part of a project. Getting the right people to sponsor and support the change can be a potential “make it or break it” determinant for any change project. Hence, the discipline of finding a structured and efficient path towards engaging stakeholders is critical.

From a structural approach, we would use the three-step approach of first identifying stakeholders, subsequently prioritising them in a matrix/grid and finally deciding on actions to engage stakeholders and building it into our project plan.

In terms of the structural approach, it helps us to understand who the stakeholders in the change process are and what is at stake for each of these stakeholders. This allows us to take each of their perspectives into account and risk-mitigate around it. This approach has for many years been a key activity for professional project managers and helped a lot of us understand the context and the influencers around the changes we have implemented.

From an agile approach, we would engage the stakeholders through the lens of their relations and their interconnectivity. We would identify the “super connectors and social connectors” and tap into their network to utilise the information circulation that exists in that specific organisation. We would supplement the above-mentioned tool with new digital versions of SNA (Social Network Analysis). Identifying the social structure of the organisation so the “engaging stakeholders” discipline becomes part of an existing organisational infrastructure and supporting that change would be an integrated part of internal stakeholder dialogues and not a “push/selling” strategy from the project and change manager. This approach towards actively engaging the stakeholders and their network increases the perspectives of the change process and therefore enhances the leaders’ ability to make sense of the complex situation at hand.

Fourth main area: Sustainability

The key to sustainable change is realising that the change is not done once the project is signed off. Sustainable change happens when change capabilities are in place to follow up on the impact and to drive continuous behavioural changes, e.g. through behavioural design or nudging. A large part of the sustainability area is also about making sure that the capabilities in the organisation are built in a well-designed and executed training strategy and plan.

From a structural approach, we would build training programmes based on identifying the new skills and competencies that the employees, leaders and stakeholders must learn to navigate in in connection with the new change. We would identify learning objectives together with senior leaders and key stakeholders and link them to the impact case designed and kept alive throughout the entire change project. We would design, build and execute training either face to face or online. In many large organisations, we use “change agents” as additional trainers and help them build the curriculum and facilitation skills through train-the-trainer workshops. Using a gamification approach has become increasingly popular, as a playful setting tends to make it easier for us to test the new ways of working without being afraid of making mistakes and more curious towards testing and learning.

From an agile approach, we would try to build the training programmes through simulations because we know that for sustainable impact to occur, it is crucial for people to understand how the change impacts their manual tasks and ways of working. It is crucial that they understand, that whatever they do in the upstream part of the process has some consequences in the downstream part of the very same process. However, this understanding cannot be achieved in one day or with some training. It can be achieved when the training design is built by collecting feedback, co-creating with employees and having them simulate and test the new solutions and ensure continuous knowledge of how to work in their new and changed “work environment”. That way, the collective understanding of the new ways of working becomes an invitation to continuously strive to make work processes even better. Additionally, it is important to underline that we believe that the training elements of virtual facilitation, gamified elements, workshops and large-scale events will support this new “work environment” training approach even better when taken out of the classroom and into the workplace. 

The previous section analyses the change toolbox in terms of the structural and agile approaches, respectively. In conclusion to this, we believe that in order to lead change with high impact, it must be taken into account not only what tool we want to use but how we use it. Because that distinction (however small it may sound) will facilitate two entirely different final outcomes. From our perspective, that is the key differentiator in making change projects succeed.

Discussion and conclusion

New organisational structures call for new ways of leading change

The increasing volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity (VUCA) conditions call for new agile approaches to leading change. Many antecedents have led to this shift, including the rise of the Internet era characterised by an information revolution. The argument goes that as information and knowledge become more democratised, decision-making similarly becomes an activity to be performed by the many rather than the few. Although one can interpret this discourse as an evolution from the old to the new, one should rather deem the hierarchical and distributed power structures to be co-existing; or as previously phrased, parallel change processes must be managed and led simultaneously. The winners will be those who learn how to balance and blend old and new power structures. The winners will be those who balance and blend the structural and agile approaches to change management by understanding that this requires leaders that are adapting to reflect these new acts of leadership.

So where does that leave the discipline of change management? We would argue that the concept of traditional change management is an illusion. You cannot manage something as diffuse and complex as change. Maybe we can influence it. Maybe we can affect it, push it 10 degrees to the left. However, assuming that we can manage change is illusive. We need to change our perception and vocabulary on change from a designed, processual-inspired and structure-driven approach relying (too much) on tools and templates and instead develop competences and a mindset for our leaders to apply their leadership skills to make continuous judgment calls to navigate changes in parallel.

This new way of understanding organisations and the change processes within them calls for new agile leadership roles. Evidently, leaders must learn to evaluate their personal approach to leading their employees (followers) as well as themselves through change processes under these newly defined conditions. But limiting the problem formulation to this, would also limit the potential solution to it. If decisions are increasingly made by the beholders of the required knowledge, rather than those with the highest rank, making leadership an activity and not a formal rank or role, leaders must also learn when to lead and when to be led through a change process.

  1. Leaders (and employees) need to take a new position and role when it comes to owning the desired impact of the change. There is no room for discarding the change as a problem belonging to another business unit, e.g. IT, HR, Production, Sales etc. Leaders need to apply their (new) leadership skills continuously as changes emerge. Leaders must also acknowledge, that change is a part of everyone’s job and that the role of the leader is to make these judgment calls on a very frequent basis.
  2. Leaders need to understand that change is an adaptive process that emerges, transforms and requires continuous attention and focus from the leaders in the organisation. And being able to handle change processes in parallel “is their job”.
  3. Leaders can carry themselves through change conversations with everyone in the organisation and affect/convey the conversation through digestion, sensemaking and translation and with a very high degree of appreciative curiosity and a solid unquestionable skill to ask open-ended questions.

Going forward, change is not a discipline for the few, such as a change manager or a change management track, but will rather be a distributed role for all depending on the situation and the change in question. This calls for new situation-specific capabilities for leaders who need to navigate in a complex landscape of changes happening in parallel.

The toolbox described above should still be an integrated part of the leadership role, but it is foundational rather than a differentiating factor. The difference between good and great leaders will thus boil down to the leaders’ ability to make sense of the complex environmental conditions that they are facing and apply the toolbox to whatever the situation and desired effect and impact of the change call for. In the face of this increasingly complex environment, the role of the leader and the ability to lead change become more crucial than ever before.

The originally co-authored by Kristine Sele Reinhard.



Hamel, G., & Zanini, M. (2018). The End of Bureaucracy. Harvard Business Review, Nov-Dec 2018

Heimans, J. & Timms, H. (2014). Understanding “New Power”. Harvard Business Review, Dec 2014

Goleman, D. (2000). Leadership That Gets Results. Harvard Business Review, Mar-Apr 2000

Keller, S. and Aiken, C. (2008). The inconvenient truth about change management. McKinsey and Company.

Kotter, J. P. (1990). What leaders really do. Harvard Business Review, 1990

Mintzberg, H. (2009b). Rebuilding Companies as Communities. Harvard Business Review Jul-Aug 2009

Naim, M. (2013). The End of Power. From boardrooms to battlefields and churches to states, why being in charge isn’t what it used to be. Basic Books by Perseus books group, New York

Petrie, N. (2014). Future Trends in Leadership Development White Paper Series. Center for Creative Leadership

Reed, M. (2005). Beyond the Iron Cage? Bureaucracy and Democracy in the Knowledge Economy and Society in Du Gay, P. (2005): The Values of Bureaucracy, Oxford University Press, New York