No one is an island: how successful leaders effect change through collaboration

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Leading organisational change and transformation is one of the biggest and most complex challenges a manager can face. We all know that no one is an island, that working together is far better than working in isolation, but how should a leader respond to the real and present dangers inherent in refashioning an organisation? How can a manager strengthen the organisation so that it can better respond to the challenges they face?

Most organisations today face change, but often the disruption this causes can damage, not strengthen their organisation. Change risks pulling an organisation apart: trust weakens, silos or impenetrable bunkers develop as people cling onto their jobs and seek to strengthen their power bases. People can become wary, feel isolated and uncertain; creativity and productivity can take a dive. In this article, we look at how managers can be successful in delivering the transformative change their business needs and how collaboration is their greatest tool for success.

Elements of a successful change initiative

First, we need to examine the make-up of a successful change initiative. What is it that makes some more successful than others, and what can managers do to avoid theirs becoming part of that 60% failure rate?

Engagement

In order for it to be successful, organisations must mobilise their entire workforce behind the idea of change. Create a compelling story around the need for change that encourages buy-in from your audience, whether it is employees or other stakeholders. Focus first on the organisational issue you’re facing, rather than jumping straight to a fixed template or methodology for change.

Involvement

For change to be successful, you’ll need to create a culture of continuous improvement, where people feel encouraged to speak up and can learn as change progresses. Tap into the skills, ideas and motivations of your employees by encouraging involvement and communication across the board.

Collaboration

To help ensure any change you effect is sustained, identify early on those people within your organisation who exert influence, at whatever level they operate. These people may not always have the title manager or leader, but they will be influencers and leaders in their own way. They will be essential to get on side if you want to foster a sense of shared ownership throughout your organisation. Encourage teamwork and collaboration throughout the change process.

Responsiveness

Don’t be tempted to follow a rigid, ‘top-down’ plan at any point, but instead adopt a responsive approach, both during the preparation and implementation phases. Encourage collaboration and teamwork. Have a well-understood working framework as your guide, with regular milestones to act as prompts for communication and allow you to check progress. Beware of adopting established change methodologies without careful thought. No methodology or tool is guaranteed to work every time, and you need to ensure ownership of the change remains within your organisation at all times.

Leadership

Although collaboration is important, don’t forget to lead from the front. A strong leader is needed to steer an organisation through change. Leaders should offer a clear sense of direction and be visible role models for the change they want to see, but remain open to ideas and input from their team. A good leader encourages decisions and leadership to take place at the levels below them in the organisation, and builds in regular feedback and learning loops. By setting an example for the involvement and engagement they want to see, they encourage these to become established working practice throughout the organisation.

Investment in learning and development

Preparing for and delivering substantial change becomes easier in organisations with strong leadership networks that encourage positivity and are motivated to make the change happen. Effective learning and development will support leaders to overcome obstacles and achieve their goals. L&D during a time of change should focus less on individual competences in isolation and more on building a collaborative process through close working with other people. Consider who in your organisation embodies the leadership change intelligences below. If there is no one, it may be time to invest in suitable training and development for the right individual.

  • IQ (Intelligence Quotient) – A leader’s ability to acquire knowledge and make a compelling argument
  • EQ (Emotional Intelligence) – Necessary for effective relationships, this is a leader’s ability to understand and manage their own emotions and those of other people
  • SQ (Spiritual Intelligence) – Representing the areas of self-awareness and self-development that are important for leaders wishing to role model effective behaviours during change, this is the ability of individuals to understand their own values and what is important to them and to the organisation
  • PQ (Political Judgement) – Representing the skills, knowledge and behaviours required to influence and negotiate with others, this is a leader’s ability to navigate a way forward through diverse stakeholder agendas
  • RQ (Resilience Quotient) – A leader’s ability to emotionally sustain high-performance under pressure
  • BQ (Business Intelligence) – The ability to understand a business and its context for change, as well as to respond in an agile way to changes and trends, spotting opportunities and constraints within an organisation.

Support

Don’t expect everyone to willingly follow your leadership. Collaborative leadership won’t be for everyone. Some people will voice concerns, and others may quietly look at moving away from your organisation. Don’t ignore these doubters: listen to them and offer them extra coaching and support so they feel valued and included.

Patience

Change doesn’t always happen quickly, so resist the urge to settle for superficial modifications. Hold out for deep-seated change. Invest time and effort in the role modelling and coaching that will ensure change lasts.

Collaboration is the key

There is one common thread that unites all these elements of a successful change initiative: collaboration. Approaches that mobilise an entire organisation behind the initiative are the most successful. Disrupting established patterns of thought and behaviour, and establishing new cultures and ways of doing things requires much more than just top-level backing. Successful change leaders aim for wholehearted engagement with the change and commitment to making it work. Be aware, though, that these are not one-time goals that you can achieve and then tick off your list – they must be continually worked for.

Collaborative leadership across an organisation is an essential ingredient to making change stick. To be effective, organisations must develop a network of leaders throughout their organisation willing and able to demonstrate true collaboration, involvement and teamwork.

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Steve Macaulay is an Associate with Cranfield School of Management and a development specialist with expertise in helping managers and organisations to achieve change in a customer-focused way. 

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