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Dealing with Disruptive Change: Lead with Balance

Disruptive innovation is all around us, and it’s causing disruptive change in our organizations at increasing pace and scale. Whether driven by technology, demographics, globalization or a host of other forces, organizations are wrestling like never before with delivering current performance while preparing for a changing future.

This has profound implications for leaders in organizations. Companies, including those we work with, want to know, “How can our leaders manage themselves and their organizations to deal with the changes we face?” Here’s a tip: recognize that in change - especially disruptive change - there are two dynamics at play:

  • The “business” side: what is the change and what does it mean for our business?
  • The “human” side: how are people responding to the change?

To manage change successfully leaders must first understand both of these dynamics, and then carefully balance them in their leadership approach. Both are critical to successful change, but neither is sufficient.

Author William Bridges has noted the difference between these dynamics in distinguishing Change from Transition. He writes, “Change is situational; transition is psychological… without a transition, a change is just a rearrangement of the furniture .”*

We don’t need to look far in the corporate world to see evidence of failed change efforts and businesses unable to survive disruptive change (e.g. Sears, Kodak, Yahoo). So what can leaders do differently?

Understand the business dynamic

It’s critical to first understand the change context: leaders cannot lead what they don’t understand. Questions leaders need to be asking include: What is going on in our business and in our industry? What is our current business model and how are we performing? What are the forces creating change for us, and what does it mean to the business? How does our business need to evolve, and how quickly? What are the implications for my part of the organization?

Understand the human dynamic

As Bridges noted, change and how people respond to change are very different. The human response to change is a transition, and it takes time - often moving more slowly than the change driving it. Leaders must be attuned to the human dynamic and how it is enabling or impeding change. Questions leaders should be asking include: How are people in my organization feeling? Do they understand what is changing for the organization? For themselves? What are they afraid of? What are they hoping for? What do they need?

Lead with Balance

Understanding and managing these two dynamics of change requires different skill sets. To understand the business context, leaders must use strategic, analytical and critical thinking skills. They must have business acumen and understand the dynamics of the industry and the business system in which they operate. To understand and manage the human dynamic, leaders must be able to listen actively, seek feedback, communicate clearly and with empathy, act with integrity and consistency, and create an environment of trust and transparency.

Most leaders faced with the challenge of leading in times of disruptive change tend to focus on either the business dynamic or the human dynamic; this is often driven by their skills and strengths. However, successful change leaders must effectively balance both dynamics. Employees need to understand the business context for the change as a first step in “getting on board”; they need to understand what it means for them and their work. They then must come to terms with what it means for them emotionally and feel supported in their journey toward embracing the change.

Learn from Experience

Learning to lead through change comes from experience usually garnered over long periods of time. Each week, we observe leaders participating in our business simulations wrestling with finding their balance between the business and human dynamics. Because the simulation accelerates time, they quickly see the impact their leadership approach has on organizational results. Those that find the balance are able to effectively manage change and improve the business outcomes. It is a powerful lesson.

However, critical to the change and transition process is also an environment where it is safe to disagree, to explore, to be heard, and to give and receive feedback. A well-crafted simulation experience creates this kind of environment. A thoughtful leader can - and must - provide this space at work.

We all know that “change happens,” and for many it is more disruptive than ever. Remember the two dynamics of change, be attentive to both, and balance them as you lead. This will help both you and your team weather the change - and the transition it creates - more quickly and successfully.

* Bridges, W. (2003). Managing Transitions. Making the Most of Change. (2nd Ed). Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press.


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Nick Noyes is co-founder of Insight Experience, a Boston-based firm delivering contextually rich, immersive business simulations and learning experiences to accelerate and integrate leadership, business acumen and strategy execution.