Questioning Change: The Leader as Change Agent
“Making good judgments about what needs to be preserved, what might be altered, and what should be totally redesigned are the difficult issues that institutions face.” Green and Hayward, Transforming Higher Education.
Change is the constant in organizations because that is the nature of the world.
The reality of constant change may not be the experience from some vantage points.
Most people in an organization desire a sense of permanence.
Given the nature of the day-to-day routine, most people experience on the job, it’s not difficult to appreciate they are lulled into a sense of stability and immutability in their organization.
From their perspective, the constancy of the job gives a sense of continuity.
For example, even in the rapidly changing field of education, the annual rhythm and cycles of the academic school year can give teachers and faculty an unwarranted sense that things change slowly from year to year.
But in fact, each year brings facets of change on multiple levels.
From the perspective of most leaders, however, change is the constant—intended or not.
Organizational leaders will confront, manage, resist, hold at bay, or instigate change every year.
Most leaders would welcome a single year with a minimum amount of change that can provide a “breather” from the steady stream of issues, challenges, and problems that bring about some level of change at multiple levels.
Unfortunately, the nature of the job means leaders will work amidst a constant swirl of change.
C. William Pollard, the author of The Soul of the Firm, provides a helpful perspective on change.
Pollard said, “Without change, there is no innovation, creativity, or incentive for improvement. Those who initiate change will have a better opportunity to manage the change that is inevitable.”
Leaders should also take his caution to heart: “Learning and innovation go hand in hand. The arrogance of success is to think that what you did yesterday will be sufficient for tomorrow.”
Leaders, then, should embrace that change is part of their job, and accept that not everyone will like it.
Leaders, however, are also stewards of change in their organizations, and as such, wise leaders will also question change—that is, they will ask critical questions that can help them discern the purpose, necessity, and nature of the change they will lead.
Here are sample perspectives that can help leaders “question change”:
- Do you have a legitimate rationale for the change?
- Can you rely on sound data to inform the change?
- How much change do you need?
- What can help leverage the change? (trust, data, internal authority, external pressures?)
- What is the institution’s capacity to absorb change?
- Has the institution navigated a similar change in the past? Did it succeed or fail? Why?
- How much risk can you absorb?
- What will you have to give up to realize the change?
- Who will you leave behind if change happens?
- What do you want to preserve?
- What will people grieve?
- What may be unintended consequences?
- What level of change is required? (Drastic or incremental?)
- What type of change is needed? (cultural, organizational, administrative, policy, technological, structural, programmatic, developmental, evolutionary, social?)
- What is your timeline for change? Is there a window of opportunity that creates urgency?
- Will your mission change as a result of the change? Does it need to?
- Will the change actually solve the problem being addressed?
- Who will commit to the change? Who is most invested in the change? In staying the same?
- Do you have the resources to make the change?
- How will you know the change is successful? What metrics will you use?
- Who will most benefit from the change?
- Who will be the most disadvantaged by the change?
- How will the change impact stakeholders? Finances? The organizational culture? Administration?
- Can you see the changes through? (Will you leave the institution before the change is completed?)
Abigail Brenner cautioned that “Change without transition may only serve to recreate old scenarios and reinforce old patterns of behavior.
For change to have a salutary effect on us, we need to learn to effectively work with it and not to run the other way when it presents itself.” (“The Nature of Change,” Psychology Today. May 6, 2011).
The Center for Lifelong Learning’s Pastoral Excellence Program works with clergy and leaders in the non-profit sector who lead and manage change. Join other leaders in one of our peer-mentoring experiences.
Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning at the Columbia Theological Seminary. He is the author of the bestseller, The Hidden Lives of Congregations (Alban), Perspectives on Congregational Leadership (Educational Consultants), and A Family Genogram Workbook (Educational Consultants), with Elaine Boomer & Don Reagan, and Leadership in Ministry: Bowen Theory in the Congregational Context.