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Ten tips for leading organisational change

Posted by: , Posted on: - Categories: Leadership Statement, Leading and managing change
Head shot of Pete Vowles
Pete Vowles, DFID

This a slightly shortened version of a blog that first appeared on Pete's personal page in the Medium social network.

My recent Google Scholar search for ‘leading change’ yielded 5.6 billion results, with John Kotter’s classic, Why Transformation Efforts Fail, at the top of the list. But, putting the theory to one side, how do you do this in practice?

Over the past three years a group of us have led a change programme in the Department for International Development (DFID), reforming the way we design and deliver programmes to tackle global poverty and its causes. Without any previous organisational change experience, learning by doing, we’ve had some real successes, a few failures and learnt masses about change.

Here are some tips, reflections and potential lessons for the future.

1. Have a strong narrative and theory of change that binds everything you do

From the start we agreed a narrative that shaped how we would work, framing engagement around our core poverty-reduction mission. We agreed that our work could not be a technocratic exercise focusing on structures, organisational charts or processes - the natural (and easiest) target for many change programmes. We were clear that the only way to achieve lasting change was to focus on the way we think and work. This is far harder and a lot less tangible, but we agreed that, otherwise, we would end up with a different but similar set of problems. This became a touchstone, guiding everything we have done, strengthening our resilience through the ups and downs of change.

2. Build coalitions of change by appealing to people’s self-interest

Change programmes in organisations like ours often – and perhaps inevitably – come from the top. Despite the best intentions to consult widely and engage frontline staff, it is easy to slip into a top-down narrative that focuses on making people more effective or efficient. This quickly becomes demoralising for hardworking staff who only hear that they need to do better. From the outset, we have tried hard to appeal to the frontline, focusing on their wants and needs, not on what we thought.

3. Engage everyone to co-produce change

From the start, we made sure that people throughout the organisation had the chance to help diagnose the problem, identify the need for and then shape the change process. This went beyond conventional ‘user testing’ to ‘user-creating’ and meant sharing our approach widely, and integrating ideas from across the department, using social media and informal networks to cut through the hierarchy. Quickly we found that leadership was coming from everywhere.

4. Open the space for challenge and critique

Throughout, we have tried to be open with the department, creating the space for people to challenge and interrogate plans and being honest about the barriers and tensions. The space to vent grievances has been critical to gaining and sustaining trust and credibility. Our experience has been that having a structured process to air and investigate concerns from internal and external stakeholders is key to building credibility and learning what’s most important.

5. Be honest with the insights

We gathered loads of data. We’ve replayed the feedback, uncensored, to the top of the organisation. We’ve found that this has been hugely valued (despite a few uncomfortable moments) and realised that this kind of data doesn’t automatically reach the top, often filtered out through the hierarchy and personal vested interests.

6. Deliver value early and often

Learning from ‘agile’ approaches to digital project delivery, we’ve made a concerted effort to deliver change early and often. There have been a few ‘big bang’ moments, but in large part the change has been incremental, brokering solutions to sticky issues on an ongoing basis to deliver early wins, building credibility as we go. When people have raised issues, however small, we’ve dedicated time to help resolve them, feeding back what we have done and how it helped.

7. Be prepared to ‘pivot’ to adapt to changing contexts

Early in our work, an external report was highly critical of the organisation and threatened to undermine the project’s momentum. Being prepared to respond to this new context, and turning it into an opportunity, was key. Rather than derailing the project, we succeeded in turning it around and used the critique to add momentum and sustain organisational interest.

8. Lead change in partnership

Having two people leading a change process in a partnership of equals was hugely empowering. We agreed a single set of objectives and agreed we would succeed or fail together. We worked as a tag team, especially in tricky meetings where, while one of us spoke, the other observed and considered, and we swapped roles as we went. This made us far more influential and resilient than either of us could have been alone. It produced different perspectives, networks and significant resilience. And it was great fun.

9. Find different ways to sustain attention

People are busy and will quickly move on to other things. We found the best thing we could do was find ways to sustain the conversation by phasing the change programme, constantly finding different ways to communicate. And whatever communications you do ,  it is never enough.

10. If you have to do things ‘top-down’, and limited time to engage, be honest in explaining why

Generally, people are happy to engage if they understand why. And we found that people can see through ‘good news spin’ and will discredit attempts to gloss over problems. Spend time explaining your actions, and take responsibility when things aren’t managed or communicated well. People will trust you more.

We’ve learnt how hard organisational change is and how fragile and reversible changes can be. Hopefully, these experiences remind us that, for long-term impact, organisational change must be an iterative process that focuses on people not processes, behaviours not organisational structures, and honest and open debate not corporate spin.

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  1. Comment by Brian Stanislas posted on

    Thank you Peter. I found this very educational and inspiring ...

  2. Comment by Andy. posted on

    Try reading: The Whitehall Effect by John Seddon, The Blunders of our Governments by Anthony King and Ivor Crewe and Drive by Daniel H Pink. Fascinating insight into what has been, could be, but isn't.

  3. Comment by Steve posted on

    Not sure what this 'speak' is about....but are they listening?

    The 'four levers of influence' eh!...This could be shortened to two for most people in the civil service:
    (a) Pay a decent wage and annual increases, and (b) return pensions rights to previous (sustainable) levels..... And watch as staff 'behaviours' change almost overnight!
    No 'psychobabble', just plain ole fair play on the issues that matter to staff is what will change behaviour!

  4. Comment by Jem posted on

    Lee - I think that's exactly what it is.

    The Kotter article is about 30 years old and technological advances alone have left it looking somewhat jaded. The article is also written from an American corporate point of view about how businesses need to respond to market pressures, such as competitors introducing new products, customers leaving, share price movement, to name just a few. None of these apply in the public sector (though there are of course other pressures).

    None of the article above is startlingly original, but then the author makes no such claim. There are several references to "engagement" and although "staff engagement" is not explicitly mentioned, it does appear that is who the author seeks to engage with. Unfortunately, not everyone agrees that "staff engagement" even exists. Cut and paste this link - - for a good example.

    I would much prefer people to stop "engaging" and get back to listening and talking, treating people as individuals and not "marks" to be manipulated.

  5. Comment by Lee posted on

    In all honesty, I'm confused. With respect, this reads like a load of management speak textbooks have been thrown at a wall.

  6. Comment by Danielle posted on