Change? Change? Aren’t things bad enough as they are?”

So responded British Prime Minister, Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, 3rd Marquess of Salisbury, when approached by an assistant about the need for change. Rather prophetic words that sum up how many of us feel about leading change, surely one of the more difficult leadership challenges facing leaders in organisations.

How do you feel about leading change? What beliefs do you hold about your ability to lead change? What beliefs do you hold about the capacity of your organisation to change? Why would you bother? Is there even a problem anyway? What’s the opportunity you want to seize & exploit? What’s the cost & what are the benefits?

The reality is most commander’s step into a more senior leadership role with some sort of change agenda whether it be large or small, explicit or covert, conscious or emergent. It could be about leading a command from under-performance and creating a high-performing organisation. It may be about building on existing good levels of performance & stepping it up into excellence.  It may be about addressing an emergent crisis – the disbandment of the RAF Regiment Support Weapons Flight following allegations of abuse in March 2021 acts as a reminder that change can be imposed at short notice & with a significant impact.

So, put yourself into the shoes of a commander stepping into a new role at any level. You have a change agenda – it may be yours or it may have been given to you. Where do you start? So, how do you go about leading effective change in your command?

How do you go about Designing a Change initiative?

Successful, effective, systemic change can be fiendishly difficult to enact, particularly in peacetime or non-operational setting where the impetus for change may be less evident to employees & the degrees of freedom & power intrinsically linked to hierarchical command structures is less effective e.g., an organisation that relies at least in part on a civil servant employee base.

So often, there is an over-simplistic approach to addressing organisational performance gaps. Organisations often respond to a performance challenges e.g., falling market share, poor performance against KPIs, by initiating a re-structuring to take out cost or introduce a new IT system or a package of new processes. The solution implemented is responding to a symptom rather than a root cause problem.

A lack of clarity of purpose, strategic drift or inattention to alignment will undoubtedly generate a plethora of negatives routinely attributed to change (staff attrition, a drop in performance, siloed behaviour, staff disengagement, change weariness) and the intended benefits aren’t realised.

Change Statistics

Before we begin, let’s look at some of the prevailing difficulties. High failure rates of change management interventions are well documented – McKinsey estimates some 70 percent of change programs fail to achieve their goals, largely due to employee resistance and lack of management support. Likewise similar figures are cited in the HBR article Cracking the Code of Change; Boston Consulting Group estimate 75% of transformation efforts don’t deliver the hoped-for results. Put another way, only 25-30% of initiatives achieve their intended outcome despite the cost & pain involved. That’s not a great return on investment.

John Kotter, in his 1995 HBR article Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail attributes failure to the following:

  • Not Establishing a Great Enough Sense of Urgency
  • Not Creating a Powerful Enough Guiding Coalition
  • Lacking a Vision
  • Under-communicating the Vision
  • Not Removing Obstacles to the New Vision
  • Not Systematically Planning for and Creating Short-Term Wins
  • Declaring Victory Too Soon (enough said)
  • Not Anchoring Changes in the Corporation’s Culture

Let’s stay ‘cup half full’ & hold the belief that the careful, clever & deliberate designing & planning of a change programme will mitigate against these risks. The following frameworks offer guidance on a way forward.

Organisation Analysis

Current State

How can you go about finding out what’s really going on in your organisation?

At this very first step you’ve a decision to make. Are you going to gather & analyse data (from 1:1s, Employee Engagement Survey data, performance statistics, trusted advisors etc.) & implement a top-down change programme or engage your employees to co-create an understanding the currents state (using large group interventions such as Open Space, World Café or Future-Search methodologies) & the shaping of the future? Either way you’re making a decision choice about the style of the change initiative – in this example a top-down or inclusive approach.

Future State

What’s the future state you foresee? What’s your Change Target? What are you trying to achieve & why? Gaining clarity on the Why is utterly essential & needs attention at the earliest stage. Whether you subscribe to Simon Sinek’s Start with Why or the military language of Selection and Maintenance of the Aim, the principle are the same – purpose is king and absolutely central to employee engagement, buy-in & commitment. Without it, your change initiative will run into the sand & be part of the 70% failure statistics.

Consider the March 2021 Integrated Defence Review; compare & contrast its stated Why & strategic intentions with the headlines reported in the press that focusses on the reduction in troop numbers & equipment scales. They present very different messages.

The Why messages have greater resonance, the What tends to draw people into unhelpful debate & generates dispute & anxiety. This is not about either/or rather yes/and – my advice is to start with Why & maintain a focus around purpose as the practical implications of the resultant changes are worked through.

How to go About Leading Change in your Command

Leading change is inherently a complex leadership activity & there’s no simple solution. There are, however, good frameworks available to guide your thinking & action that are useful when used in combination – I’ll make reference to a selection of complementary approaches:

  • Change Kaleidoscope
  • 8 Steps to Leading Change
  • Viral Change
  • Change Curve
  • Organisation Alignment

Change Kaleidoscope

The Change Kaleidoscope is a useful framework against which to develop a high-level design for a transformation approach. It provokes a series of questions:

Organisational Contextual Features
  • Context: What are the underlying factors & drivers for the change?
  • Time: How quickly is change needed?
  • Scope: What degree of change is needed?
  • Preservation: What organisational resources, assets, expertise and characteristics need to be maintained?
  • Diversity: How homogenous are the staff groups and divisions within the organisation?
  • Capability: What is the managerial and personal capability to implement change?
  • Capacity: What is the degree of change resources available?
  • Readiness: How ready for change are the managers and staff affected?
  • Power: What power does the change leader have to impose change?
Change Design Choices
  • Path: Are you striving for evolution, revolution, adaptation or reconstruction?
  • Start Point: Where will you initiate the change?
  • Style: What the management style will you use e.g., collaborative to directive.
  • Target: Your Why – what are you trying to achieve?
  • Levers: What levers and mechanisms can you pull to enact the change?
  • Roles: Who are the key players that will provide the leadership to initiate change, maintain momentum & embed new organisational norms?

Kotter – 8 Steps to Leading Change

There are elements of Kotter’s framework that are particularly relevant through-life of any change programme:

Form a Guiding Coalition

This group of people (formed of key Advocates & Influencers & not necessarily just the command/executive leadership team) are bound together with a compelling common purpose relating to the leadership of the transformation agenda. Their energy, commitment, focus & activity is directed to the leadership of change. A Guiding Coalition is likely to require supporting team development work being undertaken to help it to operate as a High Performing Team with all leaders visibly role-modelling culturally appropriate leadership behaviours.

Their work thereafter will attend to address elements of the framework, in the short term this includes:

  • Create a sense of urgency with a compelling narrative around the need for change
  • Developing & refining the vision (so all Guiding Coalition members live & breath it)
  • Deliberately, actively & relentlessly communicating the vision to all employees & key stakeholders. The ability to tell compelling stories around the need to move from current to future state is a useful approach; Col Tim Collins’ Eve of War Speech is often cited as a good example.

In the medium term the focus will be around:

  • Creating & embedding an empowered leadership practice across the wider organisation (this may well require development for a wider population of managers)
  • Finding quick win projects to illustrate that change is possible, then building momentum & critical mass around new ways of working
  • Thereafter, the focus is on embedding new ways of working (in Kurt Lewin’s language, Re-Freezing the organisation)

Viral Change – Minimising Resistance, Creating Momentum for Change

Viral Change approaches seek to build a critical mass of Advocates in a target population to generate momentum for change & avoid the establishment of a community of cynical Resistors.

As a metaphor I’d suggest it is now well understood – skilful influencing is required to engage employees who may be in a range of emotional states & operating from different identities.

Mass Engagement of Employees

Compared to corporate settings, the real estate of MOD sites & military bases often offer practical options to engage all employees in the change agenda in that there are facilities (e.g., hanger buildings) that can host large group engagement sessions to:

  • Communicate the vision
  • Engage employees in debate & discussion about the vision
  • Exploring organisation current state (in order to engage with the need for change) & co-create with future state aligned with the vision
  • Co-create solutions to perceived gaps
  • Engage employees (who are experts in their own part of the organisation) to action

Impact of Imposed Change

Significant investment (particularly in time in discussion with employees) is required helping individuals to make sense of the proposed change. Imposed change is an emotionally challenging experience & leaders must be emotionally aware & articulate and able to engage people wherever they be on the Change Curve.

Leadership approaches may on occasions need to flex quickly between directing, supporting, challenging, listening, encouraging & coaching. It requires the ability to work with both heart & head. It’s a good example of leadership as a human contact sport.

Organisation Alignment

Fundamentally, any change initiative must result in the creation of an aligned organisation. Change leadership must focus on activity that creates alignment in the organisation system. This will incorporate:

  • Shaping, communicating & evolving vision, mission & strategy
  • Work to align employees’ activities with the organisation’s imperatives & priorities
  • Developing the leadership practice across the wider management population
  • Adopting & refining the use of appropriate systems & processes
  • Deliberately shaping a high-performance organisation culture underpinned by values that are owned by all
  • Ensuring employees own the expression of appropriate practices & behaviours


Systemic change programmes require a deliberate & careful approach to realise the intended benefits of the vision. Like many related leadership matters, role-modelling, effective team working & engaging employees is critical – not doing so is likely to undermine the programme or dilute the intended benefits.