Leading Successful Change

By Dr Steve Barlow

Every leader wants to be successful. Many leaders look and act successful on the outside. Many also lay awake at night – worried about those cracks in their armour.

When it comes to change, around 70% of leaders are not as successful as they would like to be. It helps to have other people to blame, and other people certainly play their part. Change is almost never executed to perfection, and stakeholders often prefer the status quo to the new.

But note the title of this article. It’s ‘leading successful change’, not ‘driving successful change’. To be honest, I hate hearing people talk about driving change. To me, it’s a concept full of misplaced power.

It conjures two images in my mind. One is of a drover (yes, I’m Australian) going behind a herd of cattle driving them where he chooses. The cattle are mindless beasts, pawns in an economic system they don’t control or understand.

The other is a car being driven. Again, the car is a mindless source of power and value that is useful only to the driver. He or she turns the wheel and it goes wherever it is directed.

Employees are not mindless sources of power that can be driven at will, and change is not a thing you can locate in the environment and push it where you want it to go. No. There are certainly some things you can push around – like sending old computers to the scrapheap or changing where the Chairman parks the Bentley – but in the end change involves people.

Successful change must be led from the front and the most important leaders are the senior executive. You need to set the pace and you need to know which levers to pull to make change successful.

But don’t just listen to the conventional wisdom to find out what to do. If conventional wisdom on how to manage change was the be-all-and-end-all, we wouldn’t be failing more often than we succeed.

I want to (briefly) tell you about four levers you should be pulling if you want to be a successful change leader.

Lever 1 – Personal Change Fitness

It’s not a secret – organisations are made up of people. Ordinary humans pretty much like everyone you see on the daily commute to work. But here’s something many people don’t seem to know: strong executive leadership is important, but change only succeeds from the bottom up. What this means is that successful organisational change depends on successful personal change. The organisation only succeeds at change if enough people on the ground succeed at change.

So, the better people are at successfully adapting to change, the easier it is for the organisation to succeed at all the changes it needs to make. And how successful people are at adapting to change depends on how much change fitness they have.

Therefore, a critical lever to pull is the change fitness lever. We can’t go into the how to do that in this article, but keep this lever front of mind.

Lever 2 – The Success Pattern

If you knew there was a proven behavioural pattern that made something work – and a million other patterns that didn’t work – would you want to follow that pattern?

Well, there is a behavioural pattern that makes change work, but it seems very few people know what it is. This is strange since the pattern has been recognised for over 40 years and it is very well researched.

Most people manage change without following this pattern. That’s dangerous and you don’t want to be one of them. So, the second lever to pull is following The Success Pattern.

Lever 3 – PPS

PPS stands for policies, procedures, and structure. These are the structural things that influence how information flows in an organisation, how decisions are made, and how easy or hard it is for people to take action.

PPS is under the control of leaders, often senior leaders like you. When you make these things change-friendly, you pull a lever that helps change succeed. You help reduce the turbulence that impedes change and makes it harder for people to adapt to new behaviours. Leveraging the Success Patten and the PPS are essentially management issues.

Lever 4 – Culture

Your organisation may or not have a change-friendly culture but, if you have, well done. Still, you need to understand that every culture seeks to preserve itself. Being change-friendly is something good to preserve, but it’s never a simple as that. A change-friendly culture is also lots of other things, and change may threaten some of those other things.

Culture is a bit like a rubber band – it may stretch, but it also wants to return to what it was. And this poses a very real threat to long-term change. Culture wants to push people back to what has been normal practice for a long time.

If you want change to succeed in the long run, you must pull the culture lever. And you need to know how to do that.


“You can’t force culture, but you can create the atmosphere for change.”

Culture wants to push people back and low change fitness often makes people want to go back. That’s why you need to pull both these levers.

Pulling these four levers is what successful change leaders do. They can learn to do it even better, and so can you.

If you want to learn more about how to pull these four levers, we can help you. We provide training, coaching, mentoring, assessments, tools, and consultancy services. Book a time to explore your options.

Steve Barlow
Author: Steve Barlow

Steve heads up The Change Gym. He is a change readiness specialist. You can contact him at steve@thechangegym.com.