The Role of Adaptive Change Leader

Sections of this topic

    When I facilitated the PDCP Change Process (Blog March 2, Leading Adaptive Change) I was neither leading nor managing the actual work – the joy and frustration of being a facilitator. Observing leaders and managers who were at the working surface (the point where things actually happen) I realized the following:

    During times of Adaptive Change every meeting, conversation, report, and process is an opportunity to move the organization toward their vision of the future. Rolling out the PDCP gave the whole organization a chance to look at everything we did with fresh eyes. This generated numerous spin-off change initiatives that contributed to our overall success. To ensure you get the most out of this opportunity change leadership must become distributed.

    Before you get apoplexy, let’s explore this idea and see what it means for improving the success of change. By distributed change leadership I don’t mean that the org chart changes or that power and authority suddenly shift or are diluted. I do mean that many people in the organization understand and can perform the role of Adaptive Change Leader in the appropriate situation. I use the term role to mean a set of accountabilities that can be assumed by any individual given the proper knowledge and situation.

    Take, for example, Woodside Manufacturing (fictitious name) a company bringing together three diverse teams into a new 150 person operating unit. The executive team kicked off an intentional change cycle to create an integrated culture. They shared the visioning process and everyone was on board, except nothing happened. On paper the boxes and lines made total sense, but after nearly a year things are slow to gel, performance is lagging, and the executive team feels like they are “herding cats.” Behaviors and habits are hard to change when culture (or in this case, three cultures) continues to support them.

    To begin the executive team came together to understand what accountabilities they were assigning to this role. Then, they sought out change agents (identified by their actions rather than volunteerism) and worked with them to learn the role of Adaptive Change Leader so they could perform it during their daily work. For Woodside Manufacturing introducing the role of Adaptive Change Leader gave people a chance to get some skin in the game. It established people throughout the organization who fully understand what change the executive team was trying to achieve (Vision) and why it mattered (alignment to Purpose). This role differs from the role of Manager, who focuses on how the change will be accomplished and who will do what.

    Key to the success of distributed leadership for Adaptive Change is the adoption of a new perspective. In this case that meant the individual change leaders held themselves accountable for keeping the cultural change moving forward through experimentation and integration of diverse ideas, processes, and ways of getting things done. During meetings, conversations, and activities Adaptive Change Leaders used inquiry to encourage their colleagues to experience the transactional, transitional, and transformational aspects of change. For example:

    • Are there others we could engage in this process who would benefit from what we’re doing?
    • Is there something we need to let go of to move this forward?
    • Is there another way to do this that aligns better with our vision?

    Notice that they are not expected have the answers, in fact, this role was one of provocateur.

    As formal leaders within the organization managed the “who and how” of culture change, the actions of these distributed leaders reduced the transactional costs and encouraged cross-pollination between the three groups. Their leadership was particularly important as teams and individuals went through the cauldron, pulled by the red line of emotional transition and unsure of the way forward. An example of this was the introduction of patient flow modeling during the PDCP. Four people actively assumed the role of Adaptive Change Leader for this process and it took every one of them to make it happen. This informal group evaluated available products, presented their findings to management, learned how to correctly use the product chosen, and began implementing its use across the Therapeutic Areas. Where did they come from? Finance, Market Research, Global Marketing, and Project Management – you couldn’t have picked these people, they were self-selected and in an environment of open experimentation changed the way we did business by assuming the role of Adaptive Change Leader.