Change: why leaders must relinquish control

In a recent blog I argued that one of the reasons people in organisations find change difficult to cope with is the loss of control usually involved.  Change in organisations is frequently done to people.  In order to minimise resistance to change it is vital to leave as much control as possible in the hands of those affected by it. But, as a friend pointed out to me, that means those in leadership relinquishing their control.  And that, for a variety of reasons, is usually unwelcome.  But if the change you make is to be effective, it’s necessary and here’s why.

  1. We cannot control change – or if we manage to do so perhaps it is because we are not, in fact, making a change of the significance or whole-heartedness that we think we need. Any organisation is a complex system and the outcomes of our change processes are probabilistic rather than deterministic; as Forrest Gump says of chocolates (or is it life!) ‘you never know quite what you are going to get’. (1)  No-one can control it in the sense of determining delivery of outcomes with certainty.  Many of us and our CEOs, directors and bishops know this.  We think we are in charge, the organisation chart says so – but it does not feel like it. In large scale change projects it gets worse. Once you set out on a process of change you set in train forces and events which will have unpredictable and only partly manageable consequences.  Complex systems are dynamic and characterised by emergence – the system becomes characterised by properties that do not exist in the parts and which, therefore, cannot be entirely predicted.
  2. To the extent that the project is tightly controlled by leadership it will probably be insufficiently responsive to the changing world. The world does not stop changing while you plan and implement your change programme.  It will be hard to be maintain the capacity to adapt to new circumstances and new information if you insist on holding on to the reins too tightly.  The whole thing needs to move faster than rigid, central control makes feasible and the processes involved will get too complex for a small number of “leaders” to manage them closely.
  3. The organisation does not belong to you, even if you are its founder or, legally, its owner. Once you get other people involved, the organisation develops a life of its own, an identity in which everyone involved has a stake in and helps create. This is a dynamic and evolving process.  It is true, in my view, that the leadership of an organisation has a special responsibility to guard the integrity of an organisation and nurture its identity but that is not the same as owning it. If you want change to be effective, that change needs to have the support and buy-in of, as much as possible be co-created by, all those with a stake in the venture.  You cannot achieve that and retain control yourself.
  4. People in leadership sometimes place more confidence than experience warrants in the efficacy of (often expensive) technical or structural changes. The reality is that changes in attitude and behaviour usually achieve more and that changes in process or structure are generally ineffective on their own.  Even when this point is understood leadership teams frequently appear to assume that everyone in the organisation needs to change but them.  This makes change processes much less threatening to them than to others – they “control” it and it affects them less anyway.  But this is delusory.  If leaders want behavioural change in their organisation it must start with them.  They must model the change they want, to have credibility with colleagues and subordinates, if they want people to believe in the change and if the transformation is to become embedded throughout the organisation.  This involves a degree of risk-taking and vulnerability for leaders and with it a loss of control.
  5. Leadership is responsible for leading, by which I mean that it does have a responsibility for initiating and then ensuring that change is managed well. It has the right and responsibility to establish principles and processes and to develop content that will guide and inform organisational change.  Leaders should shape a process, articulate the issues and create an organisational ‘space’ in which change and its implications can be explored constructively and purposefully.  They may want to offer a view on the future and what is at stake, perhaps offer a preferred destination and strategy for reaching it. But they cannot, need not and should not have all the answers – not if they wish to lead an optimally successful and widely supported, enthusiastically implemented process.  I remember vividly being part of a discussion about strategy in a police service in which a senior officer balked at the idea of sharing the group’s thinking with others because they did not yet have all the answers.  But it is precisely offering an unfinished piece of work that allows others to contribute to and identify with the project and its objectives.

If you want to get the best result out of a change process you need to accept that it will not turn out exactly as you want and might develop features you did not envisage and which you may find personally threatening or unwelcome.  I am not at all suggesting that you should abandon responsibility for managing the process or achieving a positive outcome.  Leadership must lead, and, depending on the decision-making structures of the organisation in question, may need, ultimately, to make binding decisions. But you also need to let go of control enough to bring the full wisdom of the organisation to bear in an engaging and dynamic process.  And then you have to trust that process.


(1)    Thanks to my colleague John Beckford who provided this sentence!

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