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The Three Challenges of the Strategic Change Leader

By: :: Published: August 21, 2014

Consider for a moment the challenge of organizational change. First, one needs an insight…a new idea. Second, one needs the patience and skill to convert that idea into actions and behaviors. Finally, one needs to ensure that those behaviors are sustained over time.

To be a successful leader of strategic change, an executive needs to master each of these three challenges in the strategic change process. The difficulty is that these challenges require very different skill sets. In addition, each requires recognition on the part of the leader that the nature of the organizational change initiative itself is modified throughout the change process. In other words, these are active idea translation processes, which must be managed by the change leader.

First Translation Challenge: Creating a new mindset

The first translation challenge is the one that is most familiar to people when they think about strategic innovation. This is the translation that creates flashes of insight. It generates excitement and a sense of breakthrough. The moment itself is often experienced as happening quickly. Of course, to do it well requires lots of preparation and a process that can enable a Eureka! moment.

To overcome the first translation challenge, the change leader must overcome overconfidence, deeply held conventional mindsets, as well as a general fear of taking risks. Fortunately, leaders have many techniques available for managing this process. Scenario planning and uncertainty tracking are two widely used tools to help leaders move their teams through this first translation challenge. Creative problem solving and innovation exercises also help with this translation challenge.

Second Translation Challenge: Converting the insight into action

The second translation challenge is quite different than the first one. While the first translation challenge often happens quickly, the second one takes an extended period of effort. It requires conversations with multiple stakeholders, an extended commitment of time and resources, and a leader who is willing to be flexible in how the initial idea is implemented. 

In order to make the new idea a behavioral reality, the leader must overcome entrenched routines, conflicting interests, and incompatible time cycles between the change initiative and other activities within the organization. Techniques that will help the leader manage this process include stakeholder mapping, project management, negotiation, and influence and persuasion frameworks. 

Third Translation Challenge: Sustaining the change

All too often, a strategic change is viewed as successful when it has been executed successfully once. In fact, virtually all models of organizational change end at the completion of the second translation moment. The leaders pat themselves on their back, check off the box saying the initiative is complete, and move on to a new task. Three years later, observers will be challenged to find evidence indicating the initiative ever took place. The change was not sustained. The third translation challenge is the embedding of the change into the structure and culture of the organization. It requires a translation of the initiative on a continuous basis to fit it within local routines and established structures across different parts of the organization. It also requires further attention when people shift roles within the organization.

The change leader needs to fight the tendency to prematurely declare a change initiative complete, inflate evidence that the change is going well, as well as battle unwillingness to modify the initiative as the environment changes. Techniques that can assist leaders during the third translation challenge include scheduled situational assessments, active efforts to revisit the initial design of the change, and strategic rotation of change team membership. Each of these techniques can ensure that the change initiative adapts to unique elements of different contexts. These techniques also potentially infuse the change with new energy.

It is the rare leader who has the skills needed to navigate each one of these three translation challenges. However, those are the leaders who stand out within their organization and quickly develop a reputation for strategic thinking, creativity, and the ability to “get things done.” 

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