Leading Change

Updated: Aug 13

From Deborah Rowland, author of ‘Still Moving: How to Lead Mindful Change’


The number one difference when we talk about change compared to ten years ago is change is now ongoing - it’s a constant process. ‘Before I was brought in to help manage a specific change - whether that was SAP implementation, an acquisition or whatever the instance was. Today the request is usually about ‘we are going through ongoing change, please help’.’ Breaking Patterns Change has become the one constant in today’s business environment. Skills quickly become outdated, technologies get replaced, competitors emerge from nowhere and, amongst all this, leaders are expected to drive their organisations to the fore in the marketplace. Thus, many leaders have become change managers, constantly directing their organisation to the next thing, and the next thing after that. However, many change initiatives fail, and many become just a set of ‘busy actions’ rather than really shifting the dial. Deborah Rowland, author of ‘Still Moving: How to Lead Mindful Change’ defines change as ‘the disturbance of repeating patterns’.

The disturbance is a prime reason for change initiatives to fail; it’s tough to break habits and patterns. The human brain itself is hardwired for habits, and often we are doomed from the outset when leading change because we use these same habits to break the pattern. For example, one UK government agency was attempting to become much more entrepreneurial. Their repeated ‘how’ pattern in this agency was by writing the perfect policy paper. To change this pattern, the Managing Director (now renamed ‘CEO’ as part of the change initiative to be more commercially focused) pursued the vision of being entrepreneurial, more rapid and more agile.

‘Change is the disturbance of repeating patterns.- Deborah Rowland

He took his top team away; they came up with the vision of what the change would have to be.

The ‘what’ was clearly defined.

When asked about the ‘how’ (how it would be implemented) the newly named CEO had a response at hand - he would write a policy paper and present it to the board. ‘So, the change process he was using was exactly repeating the current culture, even if the ‘what’ he was trying to get to was radically different’ said Deborah of the story. ‘Something similar happened with a big engineering company who had the most risk managed, bureaucratic and hierarchical way of introducing agility into the company. You can see the paradox that often we are repeating our story, and it is often unconscious.’ Busy Action This can lead to ‘busy action’ – where there’s lots of movement but very little actual change. To counter this, leaders need to go to the source of those habits before they can lead tangible change within an organisation. Furthermore, they have to look inward and see how their biases and ingrained habits are affecting the thinking when implementing change. When Deborah looked inward, she saw two characteristics that would show themselves when she was leading a complex change process. First, the desire to please. Second, the desire to be perfect in everything she did. ‘I grew up with this story in my head. Having been adopted, I wanted to please people around me because of a fear of abandonment, and I wanted to be perfect as if to say ‘yes, you picked the right child’, and I brought this into my life as a leader’ said Deborah.

The four key characteristics leaders must develop to be truly effective at leading change

It was a simple change (although one that required deep introspection and action) that had big impacts which didn’t need expensive consultants. As Deborah put it, ‘how cheap was that?’ Becoming Still Deborah’s research found that half of successfully leading change is related to the quality of your ‘being’. To achieve this ‘presence of being’ requires four key characteristics. Noticing: Being present in the moment. Choosing: The ability to hit the ‘pause’ button and evaluate situations before acting. You respond to situations, not react to them. Perceiving: Being able to depersonalise experience to find a ‘witnessing’ position. It’s the skill of looking for the deeper undercurrents in the room. Integrating: This is the ability to give everything a place – including difficulties. If you exclude difficulties from large, complex change, they will grow bigger. Therefore, leaders need to address all competing factors and find a place for them in the overall system. ‘If you can’t be these four characteristics, my research shows that your chances of successfully leading a change initiative is reduced by half’ said Deborah.

‘If you can’t be these four characteristics, my research shows that your chances of successfully leading a change initiative is reduced by half.’ - Deborah Rowland

Make Disturbance your Friend

What does a leader need to do to lead change well? One of the key aspects is to make the disturbances caused by the change central to the initiative. Rather than trying to bury disturbances, they should be made your friend - indeed, they should be amplified. ‘Change always comes at a price’ said Deborah. ‘It’s going to be tough and a leader needs to honestly address that. The moment you name difficult truths and amplify them, that’s when change happens. I’ve seen most change fail not because of a lack of vision, but a lack of truth telling about the current state of the situation’. An example of this came from Deborah working with a leading executive who ran 29 oil refineries around the world. The organisation itself was in the lower quartile of performance, despite the fact the executive was ‘fiercely bright and always got to the answer first’. One of the reasons for the poor performance? Everyone was terrified of her. Deborah was tasked to make the top leadership team ‘less scary’. In her intervention with the team, she did not brainstorm by asking ‘how can we make this less scary?’ but rather by asking ‘how can we make this team even more scary than it is right now?’

By naming the difficulties, the brain begins to calm down and, by naming the emotion, it loses its grip on an individual. By addressing the problem truthfully, the team were able to decentre themselves from the emotion and were safe to discuss the difficult issues.

Now is the Time for Emergence

Emergence is, by definition, the unfolding of surprise.

Complex, adaptive systems are always in a state of innovation, always in a state of flux. With so many shifting factors within these systems, leaders need to realise that while total control is impossible, they still have the ability to successfully lead them in the direction that want to.

They can create the conditions for change by focusing on a few key actions:

1. Set a loose intention and set of ‘hard rules’: Create a few hard rules that govern the complexity and randomness within the system. A leader must have an overall purpose driving the change, and hard rules for agents to work with independently to keep the change along the right track.

2. Start small & experiment on ‘ripe issues’: In emergent change, the leader pinpoints where the most ‘pain’ in an organisation is or, alternatively, look for those groups that seem to be experimenting and doing something different, and began experimenting in that area. This is particularly true when those issues or groups are a microcosm of the overall system.

3. Now and next – work step by step: In emergent change, you don’t have a plan for the next 2-3 years. Instead, you work in a ‘now’ (what is happening right now) and ‘next’ (what’s the next step) way. When that is achieved, the process is repeated.


4. Use volunteers and informal networks: Instead of assigning roles in a change process, it can be much more effective solicitating volunteers and leveraging informal networks. Deborah used an example where a meeting would be set with the agenda about a big issue along with the hard rules and simply see who would show up. ‘I did this with one client and pretty quickly they had to get a bigger meeting room’ said Deborah.


5. Build skills in dialogue and ongoing sense making: Change happens through changing the nature of the discourse. The capacity to speak differently rather than argue well is a key skill for leaders to lead change well.

6. Uncover and amplify ‘positive deviance’: The capacity for a leader to find those pockets in an organisation that might be going against the grain (for positive purposes) is key to both lead change, but also discover what change is needed.

A key leadership role is to stimulate conversations and ideas

All big movements start from stillness

When change is constant, it takes a real leader to press pause and be still. Without having this ability to address the chaos, it can never be managed.

When leading large, complex change in an organisation leaders muse break repeated patterns, embrace the disturbance that emerges, lead their followers through rules that they can follow within the chaos, and be truthful all the way through.

In this way, real change can occur, not just busy action


10 views
Everything starts and ends with people.
cio logo.jpg
BCKR Logo.png
Safe Space Logo.jpg
Promise4.jpg
  • LinkedIn
  • Twitter
  • YouTube

1997 - 2020 Sterling Development International 

Designed by Dayvdov Consulting