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Leading Change from the Middle
A Practical Guide to Building Extraordinary Capabilities
By JACKSON NICKERSON
Brookings Institution Press Copyright © 2014 THE BROOKINGS INSTITUTION
All rights reserved.
Leaders in the Middle and Their Challenges
Colonel Michael Nichols, a no-nonsense rising star in the U.S. Army, recently moved to a new position in the Pentagon where he was handed a problem he was determined to fix, ASAP. Though of average height, average build, and average looks, the colonel was not a man of average intensity. More than five years and $60 million had been spent developing a new information technology (IT) capability through an interactive, online system to ensure the quality of prospective army recruits and to keep yearly enlistment numbers around 300,000. Unfortunately, Colonel Nichols—and the American people—had nothing to show for it. In fact, no one had started to program any software! The colonel decided to hit the reset button and reach out to Kurt Mayer for help.
Midlevel Leader: Kurt Mayer
Mayer, middle-aged and sporting a trim haircut that he had grown used to from his many years in the air force, was a fast-talking easy conversationalist and quick to slip into acronyms that are the currency of the military. Kurt was a key member of an organization within the Department of Defense—the Business Transformation Agency—the job of which was to help manage projects by cutting through red tape.
"Red tape" fails to adequately convey the challenge of developing and implementing IT projects within the Defense Department. An average IT project takes a stunning ninety-one months from the initial launch to full capability, that is, if it becomes operational at all. Projects often take so long that for those actually reaching completion (which some say may be as few as 50 percent), the capability is outdated by five to six generations of technology before the software is finally up and running.
Perspiring profusely and laboring for breath, Kurt could hardly believe Colonel Nichols was giving him only eighteen months to develop, build, and get a new IT system operational—a timeline unheard of for introducing a major IT system within the Defense Department. Kurt wasn't just reacting to the time frame for programming the system. He was envisioning the colossal challenges this entailed: he would have to enlist the cooperation of the various customers within Defense; gain support from legal, procurement, and contracts offices; and finance as well as entice other departments to support the rapid development of a new IT system.
As Kurt well knew, none of these stakeholders worked for Colonel Nichols, so the formal authority of his office could not be used to get them in line. And, having been around the (five-sided) block a few times, Kurt also expected many of them to firmly say NO. The only way to meet the timetable was to do things differently—something that few of these stakeholders were likely to agree to. With limited authority and substantial hurdles, Kurt came under mounting stress, realizing he had to figure out how to lead change from the middle in order to build an extraordinary capability in an impossible eighteen months.
Midlevel Leader: Stephen Wang
From a very young age, Stephen Wang, a well-educated city-dweller in his late twenties, wanted to serve others and his community. Quick in thinking and speaking, he radiated energy and enthusiasm. Having just been hired by the mayor's office of a major East Coast city, he now had a unique opportunity to make a big impact on his home city. Stephen would need all of his energy and enthusiasm to overcome a leadership challenge full of hurdles.
One of the campaign promises of newly elected mayor Harvey Brumbaugh was to make his large, metropolitan city the greenest in America. To this end, Brumbaugh identified several major initiatives focusing on energy sustainability, the creation of open spaces, the development of urban commercial agriculture, and other "green" endeavors. Keenly aware that unfulfilled campaign promises can haunt a candidate at the next election, Brumbaugh hired Frank Finnegan, an experienced political operative, as deputy mayor of the city's Recreation and Parks Department to lead the broader initiative. Since the mayor had far more on his plate than he could handle, it was Finnegan who hired Stephen to lead the regional food and urban agriculture initiative.
Stephen's prime task, Finnegan explained, was to launch environmentally sustainable/friendly commercial agriculture within the city. Bringing to local markets organic produce grown within its perimeter would be the poster child for the mayor's pledge to create America's greenest city. Stephen was to lead the change effort to build this new and extraordinary capability.
While Stephen was captivated by the mayor's vision and was excited to be the driving force behind the initiative for sustainable commercial agriculture, he had not embarked on such an important and novel change effort before and wasn't sure where to begin. Like many city streets fraught with potholes, large metropolitan initiatives face many bumps in the road that can cause them to crash. Competing agendas within city government, legal and regulatory constraints, and different constituencies among the city's population, with their conflicting preferences, could all upend an initiative. Faced with limited authority and substantial hurdles, Stephen had to figure out how to lead change from the middle to build the city's sustainable commercial agriculture.
A Common Leadership Challenge?
At first glance, the leadership challenges for Kurt and Stephen appear to be very different. Kurt was a veteran leader involved in a multimillion-dollar IT development and implementation project in the slow-moving and byzantine environment of the Defense Department. He was more than familiar with the military's command-and-control structure yet had to find ways to coordinate his efforts with various divisions of the army and the department, over which he had no command—a challenge he had not experienced before.
Stephen, on the other hand, was not only new to leading change efforts but was also working within a city government to launch an urban green initiative. Being the mayor's initiative, a project to implement sustainable commercial agriculture was a political endeavor from the get-go, which was new territory for Stephen. Furthermore, he was leading change as a political appointee whereas Kurt was doing so as a career public servant. But were their challenges really as different as their situations implied?
On closer inspection, the structure of their challenges appears remarkably similar along several dimensions. For one thing, executives at a higher level asked each to create new organizational capabilities—an IT system to recruit 300,000 quality volunteers each year in Kurt's case, and an administrative apparatus to encourage and support sustainable commercial agriculture within a city in Stephen's. And both tasks would consist of curtailing, changing, or creating capabilities that span multiple activities and units across their respective organizations.
Both projects also took place in political environments. Of course, almost all organizations experience some (and perhaps a lot of) internal politics. Politics surface when anyone tries to shift resources, responsibilities, or roles and are especially potent when these proposed shifts necessitate change in organizational units under someone else's control. For instance, Kurt's assignment would have an impact on several organizational units beyond his immediate authority to build and implement the new IT enlistment capability, and Stephen's task would not only involve a city bureaucracy to which he was new but would also need the support of politicians, citizens, farmers, and others if a new administrative capability was to be put in place for the development of sustainable commercial agriculture in his city.
Even if midlevel leaders are able to navigate the political landscape, overcome the inertia that commonly leads people to resist change, and achieve some degree of success, it may be difficult to satisfy varied stakeholders without diluting, undermining, or diminishing the goals of the capability, which in some instances may disastrously impede implementation efforts altogether. Such political factors surely help to explain why implementation efforts in business fail to achieve their objectives 70 to 90 percent of the time.
To put it succinctly, when midlevel leaders like Kurt and Stephen embark on the construction of new organization capabilities, their basic task is to figure out how to get stakeholders up and down as well as across the organization to change their behaviors, routines, and activities so as to implement an initial (and often fuzzy) vision, conception, or design specified by higher-ups. To do so, they must navigate through a complex organizational and political landscape without the benefit of much positional authority. These are the distinctive features of the challenge that awaits those who would lead change from the middle. They might well ask whether any advice is available to help these midlevel leaders successfully build extraordinary capabilities.
Existing Advice for Leading Change from the Middle
If Kurt and Stephen were to turn to many popular books or academic journals on the subject, they would find that the advice there tends to cluster around two fundamental approaches to leading change: one approach involves various strategies for achieving compliance among subordinates and the other approach seeks to gain commitment from subordinates. To achieve compliance, leaders must know precisely what to do. They will use their authority to direct activity and "measure-and-punish" or "measure-and-reward" people depending on the outcomes delivered—in essence, this approach is one of command-and-control. It induces change by tapping into an individual's fear of punishment and desire for rewards. These levers aid in allaying the uncertainty that causes people to defend the status quo and makes them reluctant to change their behavior and organization.
If the leader is at the apex of an organization demanding a new capability and recognizing that change must occur, a compliance approach can work well. The leader makes decisions, specifies the tasks, defines how to measure outcomes, and structures the rewards and penalties associated with different outcomes. But let's hope that the leader's decisions are the right ones, that measurements of subordinate behaviors and outcomes to achieve the goals are designed well, and that rewards and penalties deliver the desired behavior, as any lack of success will rest with the leader and not the employees.
The commitment approach, by contrast, induces change by empowering subordinates to figure things out and to act on their own initiative. To this end, the leader assigns decisionmaking authority to subordinates and builds up their trust and understanding so that a sense of teamwork develops through a collective vision and collective action to bring it to fruition. In this case, direction is not simply handed down from the leader; rather, the team is fully involved in figuring out and formulating the challenge, coming up with a solution that responds to the challenge, and then collectively implementing the solution. With a commitment approach, leaders focus on supporting and coaching the team, overcoming roadblocks, and filling potholes instead of autocratically directing employee efforts.
Commitment approaches work well if the leader is willing to let subordinates make decisions and is able to build, maintain, and, if need be, repair trust among those empowered. Leaders here must socialize the community around their change objective, provide guidance, facilitate and support conversations, and let empowered subordinates lead the way.
Neither compliance nor commitment alone appears to offer an ideal approach to leading change from the middle. A prerequisite for a compliance approach is a substantial amount of authority to allow the midlevel leader to make decisions and structure measurement and reward systems. Kurt and Stephen did not have that kind of authority. Perhaps Kurt could have persuaded the colonel, and Stephen the mayor, to take the autocratic steps needed to enact and enforce a compliance approach, but even they may not have had the full authority to implement a project on this basis: the colonel is not at the apex of the Defense Department and the mayor must contend with other branches of the government not under his control. Besides, if these leaders assigned the projects to Kurt and Stephen, then kicking the challenge back up to their bosses was probably not a good way to propel the project—or their careers—forward.
A prerequisite for a commitment approach is that the leader assign decisions to subordinates as well as build and maintain trust. Kurt and Stephen have few subordinates to empower and certainly will have to engage other stakeholders who are not subordinates. Trust can take a long time to build, yet often is fragile and can be destroyed in the blink of an eye. Because both men were new to their roles, it was not clear that they would be able to build the needed trust and empower the relevant stakeholders, especially with such little time to do so. Asking the colonel and the mayor to employ a commitment approach seemed of little value as they had already assigned the projects to their midlevel leaders.
Using compliance and commitment simultaneously with the same group of people does not work well either, because the two approaches are fundamentally in conflict. Suppose a leader makes decisions using the compliance approach but at the same time asks for commitment from subordinates, entrusting them to make critical decisions. If that leader tries to override a team's decision just once, the trust needed to support a commitment approach becomes seriously damaged, perhaps irreparably. Subordinates are unlikely to again make critical decisions. A leader employing a compliance approach cannot simply get workers to suddenly adopt a commitment approach as if throwing a switch. It takes time, sometimes years, to build trust and socialize a team in the appropriate behavior in a commitment environment—time that most midlevel leaders don't have.
Neither the commitment approach nor the compliance approach seems to match the needs of midlevel leaders, especially when they need to change, curtail, or create capabilities that span several organizational units. Perhaps one reason why leadership books and academic journals fail to connect well with the challenges of leading change from the middle is that they target change management approaches for different organizational problems.
Between Changing Culture and Continuous Improvement
At one end of the spectrum of advice in the literature, senior leaders are told how to transform an entire organization. They learn how to develop and implement a new strategy, shift an organization's culture, integrate a merger, introduce a new set of organizing principles, and embark on other ways to make transformational and systemic changes that usually are tackled by the most senior executives of an organization. Such challenges are complex, because many activities and behaviors are being changed, and ill-structured in the sense that gaining agreement on how to proceed with such a sweeping reconfiguration of the organization is difficult because of conflicting viewpoints. Scholars offer many different approaches to leading such sweeping and transformational change.
Processes and advice that focus on organization-wide transformational and systemic change are inappropriate for those who are leading change from the middle, because these processes implicitly or explicitly assume that the leader has a substantial amount of authority. In essence, transformational processes for change management are the wrong tool for the job.
At the other end of the spectrum, leaders will find advice on processes for incremental changes. These processes tend to apply to a single activity or a small unit of an organization. They target the individual behaviors and routines of frontline workers who need to improve upon specific activities, tasks, and routines, but they are not designed to modify, curtail, or create capabilities. For instance, processes like lean production, Six Sigma, and others are designed to facilitate ongoing and incremental changes, especially within and between activities, but ultimately yield only incremental advancements in existing capabilities.
Change processes that focus on incremental and continuous improvement are great for improving and advancing existing capabilities, but they are not designed for leading the creation of new capabilities like those needed for Kurt's IT system or Stephen's commercial agriculture. These processes, like lean production and Six Sigma, are used to advance efficiency by assessing and analyzing frequently repeated activities for undesirable deviations and wasted steps. By contrast, when the task is to build new capabilities, the organization has not yet developed those frequently repeated steps and activities that can be improved upon by moving down a learning curve. In other words, frontline continuous improvement processes have little to offer in the way of building new and extraordinary capabilities, though they are very useful for incrementally and continuously advancing capabilities already in existence.
Excerpted from Leading Change from the Middle by JACKSON NICKERSON. Copyright © 2014 THE BROOKINGS INSTITUTION. Excerpted by permission of Brookings Institution Press.
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