"Speed of change is the driving force. Leading change competently is the only answer."
Given the profound and long-lasting impacts of rapid technological advances and globalization these days, one would be hard-pressed to name an industry that has not had to adapt and change. Certainly in the public sector knowledge economies, the volume, variety, and velocity of information has been a game-changer. For libraries in particular, my world, a mythology that libraries have been replaced by Google and Amazon, and fuelled by intense competition for people’s time and attention, has created the imperative for bold and innovative change.
And while the challenge is to adapt while remaining true to the core mission, what’s needed now more than ever is transformative change. We’re talking about wholesale change – re-aligning structures, systems, practices and culture. Not just moving the deck chairs around.
Consider this: 70% of change efforts fail. In his classic text, Leading Change, John P. Kotter describes his eight-stage change process, beginning with “establish a sense of urgency” and ending with “anchor new approaches in the culture”. He provides the steps needed to give your change initiative its best chance of success. But overall, this book is about the work of leadership in times of change.
Less management, more leadership
"Because management deals mostly with the status quo and leadership deals mostly with change, in the next century we will have to become much more skilled at creating leaders."
After decades of management in stable times, this is a time for less management and more leadership.
For most of my career, I’ve managed change of one kind or another for libraries. In the earlier years, those changes were about introducing technology to stable organizations: more of a process of bolting something new onto an existing and solid structure. Over time, the technology started to drive more significant organizational change: changes in processes, practices and policies. In more recent years, the accelerated rate of technological change has left many libraries reeling; stability is no longer the norm. While good solid management worked in the early years, serious leadership is now required to support the profound organizational change that is essential to our survival.
As Kotter notes, successful transformation is 70-90% leadership and only 10-30% management.
Leadership is needed to define what the future will look like, to align people with that vision, and to inspire people to make it happen despite all of the obstacles along the way. It takes leadership to build the new systems, or transform the existing ones.
But leadership involves taking risks, trying new things, being willing to fail and learn and try again. The problem is that most of us came up through systems that valued management skills – keeping things running smoothly as they’ve always run – and this leadership thing is relatively new territory. Organizational commitment to lifelong learning, to building leadership capacity, and to supporting those who willingly leap into the future, is essential. Overly controlling, stiffly bureaucratic organizations are increasingly irrelevant.
Just as organizations will be forced to learn, change and constantly reinvent themselves, so too will the individuals who help to move an organization forward. For the organization that I lead, it’s clear that developing leadership capacity at all levels is essential. Kotter describes successful organizations in the twenty-first century as becoming more like incubators of leadership – a concept that resonates well with me.
"Few things move easily, because nearly every element is connected to many other elements… Changing highly interdependent settings is extremely difficult because, ultimately, you have to change nearly everything."
Wholesale organizational transformation can become a huge undertaking because nearly every element will need to be changed: structures, systems, practices, culture and policies all need to be realigned. Training programs, job descriptions, and performance evaluation systems may need to be changed. Individuals may need to be added or subtracted from the organization. Before long, dozens of elements will require change, resulting in multiple and interdependent change efforts for every aspect of the organization, and requiring years’ worth of sustained and focused effort.
In my organization, nearly every element has undergone, or will undergo, change. Where once our structure was organized by buildings, we’re now organized along service lines. Where once all decisions were made by managers, decision-making now happens at the level where it makes the most sense. Where once the services were designed to be impersonal, we’ve recognized that our value is personal and have reoriented our service practices accordingly. Our once-thin policies were designed for a former era; now they are extensive and robust. Our culture is changing from one that was closed and insular to one that is open and welcoming. And as each area is touched in some way, some other element comes to light that also needs adjusting.
Implementing multiple and interdependent change projects simultaneously would be impossible for one leader working single-handedly. Dozens of change efforts across an organization requires coordinated leadership effort – and the participation of all employees.
"Major internal transformation rarely happens unless many people assist. Yet employees generally won’t help, or can’t help, if they feel relatively powerless. Hence the relevance of empowerment."
For an organization to do more within its means, a great deal of authority needs to be delegated to lower levels than has happened in a previous “over-managed and under-led” era. Engaged and empowered employees are needed to transform an organization into something better.
In my experience, major change often demands personal growth, and a commitment of both the head and the heart. New social skills and attitudes may be needed to support the success of new teams and collaborative effort. All of this comes with some emotional work: some letting go of the status quo, coming to trust others. Engaging employees at this level requires a supportive environment, an organizational commitment to life-long learning, and a common goal.
Kotter makes an interesting connection between leadership and empowerment: “Many of the same kinds of organizational attributes required to develop leadership are also needed to empower employees.” It’s an observation that’s worthy of reflection. My experience is that the delegation of authority requires a fair measure of support and conversation.
Providing leadership that builds the capacity and supports the growth of others, capturing their hearts and minds, is necessary to support successful major change. Kotter notes that “Many people try to transform organizations… [by] authoritarian decree and micromanagement. Both approaches have been applied widely in enterprises over the last century, but mostly for maintaining existing systems, not transforming those systems into something better.”
Given the complexity of wholesale change, leading people through it well – through a sense of urgency; through vision, strategy and communication; through empowerment and culture – will push leaders to be their very best.
And given how long such wholesale change efforts take – from 3-10 years, according to Kotter – just imagine how extensive the leadership capacity of an organization will be strengthened when the change efforts are handled well and sustained over that time.