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Leading strategic change

Ahead of an Edinburgh Business School masterclass on 4 and 5 May, Professor John Amis, the University’s Chair in Strategic Management and Organisation, answers our questions about how to effectively lead in a changing business environment.

Photo of a man's hand using chalk to solve a problem on a blackboard

Your upcoming masterclass looks at being an effective change leader – how would you say we judge someone as a success in this area?

We are often drawn to previous first-hand experiences, or events that we have heard something about. We might think about an individual who took bold, decisive action to lead their organisation out of a crisis, or somebody who inspired us to accomplish something significant with a quiet word of advice or encouragement. We might consider a corporate leader aggressively expanding into new markets to take advantage of a new service capability, or the leader of a team whose changes to the ways in which his team operated led to the development of a new product innovation. Whether it is a stump speech to a large audience, or a one-to-one chat over coffee, the most effective change leaders are able to accomplish results by bringing about changes in behaviour in the people with whom they work. A leader who crafts the right messages, delivers them at the right time, and uses the most appropriate channels of communication.

Leading strategic change involves communication, but what else?

We often need to think about the structures that are in place – such as reporting arrangements or locations of activities – that require altering. We may also find that some long-standing processes or systems – perhaps the ways in which rewards are determined or information is shared – have become obsolete. Or, we might discover that fundamental reforms are required to the culture or values of our organisation or team. In fact, it is quite possible that transformation is required across all three areas. There is no doubt that developing the skills that allow for the accurate diagnosis of current failings and crafting of appropriate solutions are crucial for effective change. However, I contend that any such transformation is highly unlikely to be successful without compelling communication from the change leader.

Crafting effective change communication messages is complex, but what are some basic considerations to always bear in mind?

Firstly, understand that any talk of change will lead to uncertainty and even fear. Just as nature abhors a vacuum, so social settings abhor a lack of information. Without concrete information, the spaces created by uncertainty will be filled with gossip and speculation – much of which will likely be misguided and even apocalyptic. Thus, it is vital that the change leader is able to present accurate information in a timely and compelling way such that she can shape, as much as possible, understanding of what is to come.

Secondly, to get people’s attention, and willingness to act, the change leader should ideally be able to connect the change to the interests of those affected. This might be a link to personal self-interest, or the interests of the groups of which he is a member, or both.

Finally, the channels used to communicate are vital. Understanding the likely impact of the message, the nature of those to be affected by it, and the implications for future working, are all vital when thinking about the format, style, and timing, of change communication.

How can we dramatically increase the chances of successful change?

Collectively, the above points create a compelling argument for change leaders to understand the context in which they are operating. Unfortunately, leaders too often fail to understand the importance of this, with the consequence that they act – and communicate – without giving due care and attention to the setting in which they are operating. This is usually catastrophic to change attempts and is likely a major reason why the failure rates of change are reported to be in excess of 70%. However, with greater preparation, and better understanding of context, we can dramatically increase the chances of successful change.

The masterclass

The advanced two-day Leading Strategic Change Masterclass, featuring practical exercises and the latest theoretical developments, is being held on 4 and 5 May 2017 in the University of Edinburgh.

Book your place