Sparking change with less pain: An open approach

Digital transformation demands a new approach to change management. Openness provides it.
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Throughout the last decade, we've been undergoing rapid change in the way we deliver services, conduct our business, share our lives on social media, and use digital technology to engage with one another globally. Let's talk about a short list that is now our norm: digital media consumption, on-demand entertainment, self-driving cars, augmented reality, credit card chips, smart phones, smart wearables, and even drone delivery for your "I can't wait" items. We can even create organs on a 3D printer—total sci-fi stuff for anyone born before 1983. These incredible advances came from new ways of thinking, from pioneering an idea to see "what if."

Yet while we've disrupted industries and found new ways to conduct business, we've neglected disrupting the back of the house. That is to say, our organizational design strategies have not kept pace. Using last decade's change management methods to address digital transformation is like trying to stream Netflix through a 1997 dial-up connection—you're not going to get anywhere.

Successful transformations (of any kind) require new ways of thinking and new methodologies to succeed and sustain said change. In the first part of this series, I introduced change management as being one of the four crucial areas for a successful digital transformation. In this article, I want to unpack the idea of "change" even further. Changing your approach to transformation efforts can help reverse some change management trends we're seeing today—and lead to a successful, sustainable, and adaptable organizational environment.

The need for new thinking

The discipline of change management has been around for more than 50 years. It's a collective term defined as all approaches to preparing and supporting individuals, teams, and organizations in making organizational change. Despite its multi-decade history, however, change initiatives have continued to fail at a rate of 70% over the last 40 years.

This prompts the question: What is wrong with our approach and what is missing from the equation?

A more immediate question might be: Given the speed of digital transformation today, how can we expect successful change initiatives in our organizations and cultures by continuing to utilize outdated thinking?

In "Change Management Needs To Change," Ron Ashkenas, writes:

The content of change management is reasonably correct, but the managerial capacity to implement it has been woefully underdeveloped. In fact, instead of strengthening managers' ability to manage change, we've instead allowed managers to outsource change management to HR specialists and consultants instead of taking accountability themselves—an approach that often doesn't work.

A 2013 Gallup article by David Leonard and Claude Coltea supports this argument. Leonard and Coltea assert that this failure rate is due to leaders overlooking the role of front-line managers in success of initiatives, as well as, HR's role in equipping managers with the right action steps to succeed.

Simply put, we have not given our people the capacity, competencies, and tools to actually manage change successfully.

The impact of people during transformation

Everyone responds to change differently. Reactions tend to span a spectrum from "Let's go!" to "Don't make me move." Typically, leaders implementing change want everyone to step up to a "let's go" mentality—and then they become frustrated with those who are camped out on the "I'm not ready" line.

What we have missed with this style of thinking is that it takes all actors along the spectrum to navigate an organization through change.

While we've disrupted industries and found new ways to conduct business, we've neglected disrupting the back of the house.

If we disregard those who seem resistant, we've discounted a necessary point of view from those actors who help us mitigate risk and create detailed steps in building successful strategies. Understanding the profiles of the actors in our organizations can help us from building high performing teams to knowing how and when to initiate communications (my colleagues and I at LDR21 are getting ready to share our work in this area).

Adaptability requires two things from us: the capacity to proactively adjust to changes in the environment and the capacity to sustain the adjustments that we make. So we must know how people respond to change and we must understand our environment's capacity to sustain the change.

In addition, people (at all organizational levels) need to receive appropriate tools to aid in creating and managing change. One of the most disturbing comments I continue to hear from managers (at varying levels) is that—despite the layers of transition and change—they're told to "just do your job better and figure it out." They're being asked to become miracle workers by meeting unrealistic expectations without any tools or runway to actually manage change.

These tools come in many forms: decision making models, additional trust and autonomy to implement changes as needed, access to professional development, and exercises for changing entrenched patterns of thinking.

Building change initiatives on open principles

Getting our ecosystems and culture change efforts in order now is imperative, because we can anticipate only an accelerated pace of digital transformation.

To succeed in this constant state of flux, we need to develop people into "rapid responders" able to solve problems, adapt quickly, and innovate with new intensity.

In order to affect this level of transformation, we need to disrupt our approach to people, process, and culture. By leveraging the power of open principles, we can do this easily and sustainably.

Building an organizational framework and change methodology on open principles allows for a culture of constant learning and development, a place to have difficult conversations, adaptable work teams, a more cohesive and communicative community built on shared ideas, and the best possible solutions being created.

To meet the demands of this ever-evolving thing we call "work," we must change how we think, how we approach work, how we assess the value of all things making up our ecosystem, and how it all connects together.

While digital transformation is not a new phenomenon, talking about its effect on people seems to be. We need to begin implementation discussions earlier. To lead successful organizations into the future, we must also alter the ways we value the contributions made in the areas of people, processes, and cultural influences. Having amazing products or services means nothing without a functional and adaptable ecosystem to sustain innovation.

We can likely agree that it's time to change our change methods. Yet how do we actually do it? In the final part of this series (coming soon), I'll provide a blueprint for rapid change that you can use in starting your transformation conversations.

Jen Kelchner
Jen Kelchner is a thought leader on culture, leadership, and digital transformation. She has been featured in Forbes,, Google Cloud, Red Hat, Enterprisers Project and other publications.


John Kotter's suggestions about change management have been around for some time, yet are still useful and valid. It's not a rigid prescription, since one of its elements is to adapt. The biggest problem with change always has been the resistance to change at multiple levels of an organization, where those at the top think that change is for those underneath them, those at the bottom may dig in their heels and refuse to budge or even subvert the process.

Greg, I agree that a significant challenge has been the approach to change and not empowering its ability to happen at all levels. Our position, and radical approach to change methods, is first understanding the roles needed to initiate and sustain change from the human perspective; and then providing those actors with the right mindset shifts and tools to execute change. I'd be interested in your opinion when we release this work in the coming months. In order to disrupt how we initiate change, it has to be an inclusive approach to engage all actors within the ecosystem - which changes the failure rate and buy-in resistance.

In reply to by Greg P

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