Championing change: Clarity or chaos

Monday, 14 May 2012 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

The only permanent thing in the world is change. Everything is changing, either towards better or worst. Change is crucial for individuals as well as for institutions. Driving change in providing needed leadership is essential for sustainable growth. Today’s column is all about championing change.


Nature of change

It says that the only person who loves change is a baby with a wet diaper. Change is uncomfortable. Human nature is such that there is resistance to move beyond comfort zones. Renowned Novelist D. H Lawrence puts this so vividly: “No one fears a new idea, what they fear is a new experience.” Telling is easy and doing is difficult. That’s why you need to drive change. There are many instances both local and overseas, where change initiatives have failed due to lack of leadership.

Whether we like it or not, it has become a competitive necessity in an increasingly competitive world. As Charles Darwin said, “It is not the strongest species that survive, nor the most intelligent, but the ones who are most responsive to change.” Whether you distinct or extinct will depend on how you respond to change. It can be a case of being a victor or a victim.

Types of change

There are essentially two kinds of change, evolutionary and transformational. Let’s look at the organisational context. Evolutionary change involves moving incrementally towards the future vision of the organisation and achieving the desired transition in short steps. It is all about being “slow and steady”.

Transformational change, on the other hand, occurs where there is a pressing need for urgent, substantial change. It is a case of being “speedy and solid”. Where a case for significant reform and modernisation has been identified, a transformational change management approach is required.

Transformational change is difficult to drive but having a long-term impact. It may need a fundamental reorientation in the way in which the organisation operates.

Kurt Lewin, a change management expert discussed way back in 1951, a three-step concept to the change management process. As he puts it briefly and brilliantly, such a process is structured around three interrelated activities:

  • Unfreezing the existing organisational structures, systems and procedures
  • Implementing changes to create the desired organisational outcomes
  • Refreezing the organisation.

Lewin also uses an interesting metaphor to describe the process of change. He suggested that that changing an organisation is like navigating a large ship across calm waters. The captain makes the occasional adjustment to the ship’s course, there is furious but coordinated activity while the ship reorients it, and then the whole ship moves off calmly in a new direction.

Leadership and change

Riding a constant wave of organisational change is very difficult for employees. In fact, it often results in a risk-averse response in which employees want to rest in their comfort zone. This avoids dealing with the new demands, new processes and new expectations.

How, then, can a leader convince his risk-averse followers to catch the next wave of change with him or her and embrace the change, knowing that the ride may not always look comfortable, safe or enjoyable? This in fact is a critical challenge.

As we know, leadership is all about inspiring, influencing and instructing a team towards an identified goal. It is a journey to make a dream a reality. In such a journey, obstacles become opportunities and stumbling blocks become stepping stones. Yet, it is not a rosy path at all.

Leadership styles and scale of change

What leadership style will lead to what type of change? It opens us a variety of scenarios. The model developed by two leadership researchers, Dunphy and Stace in 1991 offers many insights with this respect. Figure 1 contains the details.

As the figure depicts, scale of change can be either major or minor. Minor change initiatives include: fine tuning and incremental adjustments. Fine tuning is getting a better ‘fit’ between what is and what should be. It may include refining policies and procedures, clarifying established roles with their associated powers and accountabilities, and developing people to undertake a particular role. Incremental adjustments are distinct modifications. They include shifting the emphasis among priority services or strategies, improving process technology and adjusting organisational structures.

Major change may refer to modular or corporate transformation. Modular transformation means a major re-alignment in one part of the organisation. Examples could be major restructuring of a work area/division, new appointments to key management positions in a particular work area/division or an introduction of significant technological changes affecting a key work area/division. Corporate transformation refers to strategic whole-of-organisation change. Such change may include major changes in organisational structure, systems, and processes and reformed organisational mission.

Based on the above model, we can identify two different style of leadership.

Collaborative: This involves high levels of participation by followers in making important decisions and implementing such decisions. The key word is leader working with the team showing a high level of participation.

Coercive: Here, the reference is to apply force. It can be the executives of same organisation. Or, it can even be the outside bodies forcing changes on the organisation. The team will oblige as there is no choice.

Based on the two scales or change and two style of leadership, four different scenarios emerge. Let’s look at them and see the relevance to Sri Lanka.

Four scenarios of change

Based on Dunphy and Stace (1991) model, the following scenarios can be possible.

1. Participative evolution

It refers to collaborative leadership style for a minor scale of change. A manager working with a departmental team in improving the orderliness of the department is one such example. Many such success stories can be found in Sri Lankan organisations. Popularity of quality circles in both manufacturing and service organisations is an indication of the presence of participative evolution.

2. Charismatic transformation

Here is a case of collaborative leadership style with a major scale of change. A manager working with a departmental team to launch a new product or to introduce a new service is one such example. The emphasis on the term charismatic refers to the energy and enthusiasm demonstrated in the process of major change. How the Sri Lankan apparel sector faced the GSP issue with the urgent need for cost-reduction highlights the local presence of charismatic transformation.

3. Forced evolution

It refers to applying of pressure to make minor change happen. The indications are that the relationship between the leader and the team is not so solid for the leader to convince the team to work together for change. It can also be a case of high resistance from the team. A manager working with a departmental team to increase punctuality or to reduce absenteeism is one such example. Traditional workplaces with outdated personnel management practices in Sri Lanka may fall into this category of change.

4. Dictatorial transformation

There is where coercive leadership style is associated with major change. One may hail this as a sure success with local and global examples. There are instances where force is the only language a team will understand. However, long term sustainability of results will be difficult as there will be neither ownership by the team nor the willing corporation by them.

One may not find a perfect approach that will fit universally to all change initiatives. Perhaps, coercive style also may have its usages in the short or even in the medium run. However, in the long run, participatory approach will give a sustainable harvest.

Way forward

Championing change is a crucial challenge for corporations. Right blend of leadership style and the scale of change have to be employed in such instances. “Task before self” can be a sensible approach in making them happen. As Harry Truman, a former US President said, “It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.” You need something that does not rapidly change with changing times. This is the “changeless” core of values, leading to consistent ethical behaviour.

(Dr. Ajantha Dharmasiri is a learner, teacher, trainer, researcher, writer and a thinker in the areas of Human Resource Management and Organisational Behaviour. He can be reached on


Recent columns