The Case for Change at Humber College: The HRMS Innovation Project

Humber CollegeOrganizational change is a constant challenge today and plays a significant role for organizational leadership in institutions of higher education. On a daily basis organizations are challenged to improve their business performance, and take on new and exciting projects, often as a result of a change in strategy or to increase business effectiveness.

Over the past two years Humber College has undergone significant change towards being strategically positioned as the leader in Polytechnic education in Ontario.  In September 2013 Humber launched a revitalized brand to support student success.

In supporting Humber’s value of innovation, Human Resources Services over the next year and a half, will undertake a transformational change initiative to our HR systems most notably with the design and implementation of a new Human Resources Management System (HRMS) technology business platform for managing our HR processes.

Download PDF: The Case for Change at Humber College: The HRMS Innovation Project

Reinventing Perspectives on Organizational Change

Today’s business environment is dynamic and highly uncertain. To become and remain successful, organizations must successfully respond to constantly changing conditions. This paper will provide a brief overview of the various perspectives that have guided the field of organization development and change management, with sections that will describe practical application of change management intervention methods for targets of change, and understanding organizational change resistance.

This paper will also introduce the reader to a rich literature review to assist in understanding the breadth of this field, and while there is a great deal known in the area of organizational development and change management, there is a full range of issues still to be addressed. This provides the change practitioner with an overview of the approach and methodology used to identify the relevant literature from the peer-reviewed research literature, as I wanted to integrate the results of this review with an overall assessment of the implications of practical applications.

Download PDF: Reinventing Perspectives on Organizational Change

Integrating Organizational Change: Scholarship and Work Practice

Introduction

Researchers and practitioners both seek to explain phenomena in the real world and to give an account for the data they consider relevant. There are opportunities to understand current issues as they relate to future trends, generating dialogue to assist research, while providing an opportunity for each to gain insight from each other’s point of view. The purpose of this paper is to form a rich and integrated understanding of the phenomena of organizational change within a project environment, exploring the frameworks upon which classical change theory is developed. I discuss the role of research and the application of research findings in this area of study, based on one Canadian utility company’s performance with change initiatives. I will offer advice on the need for a more integrated conceptual framework between scholarly knowledge and practitioner experience in working with organizational change. A review of multidisciplinary literature on change management models is presented in conjunction with this framework. The framework is then applied as a basis for deriving the effectiveness of the change management implementation during one organization’s change initiative.

The Need for Better Integration

Bentz and Shapiro’s (1999) view is that society has moved toward being a knowledge-based society, and structured inquiry of a scholarly kind has come to shape knowledge in every field. The notion of scholarship does not just represent knowing the subject matter of a discipline; it’s equally about competence in the specific methods of scholarly inquiry in the field. There is tremendous value in bringing together the contribution of the scholar and practitioner, promising significant gains in knowledge of the world and improvements to interventions in it. Each role has its contributions and limitations. The scholar brings the theoretical tools for analysis and critical reflection. The practitioner brings experience and access to multiple layers of practical knowledge. The scholarship of integration makes connections between the disciplines, and explores the wider relevance and usefulness of knowledge.

Scholarly work and their results need to be relevant and of value to the requirements of practitioners. Practitioner knowledge and experience-based feelings should recognize the value in establishing an epistemology of practice that indicates when or why certain interventions should be used for this partnership to work. In other words, the skills, rules, and knowledge of human behavior should be used by practitioners to develop approaches that are compatible with multiple ways of knowing or sources of information. Adding to this contradictory relationship, the field of change management includes extensive popular management literature and an abundance of independent consultants who sell applications of one methodology as the solution to all organizational problems. This is often confusing to businesses, since consultants appear to have anecdotal evidence that their solutions work. What is often lacking is good scholarship that helps users of management consultants’ ideas know how to decide when and if the theory will solve their problems.

History – Informing Practice

There is no shortage of articles on organizational change theory, organizational development, or any number of the other descriptors for this field of study. However, the literature suggests that there is not one single approach or methodology that is comprehensive, yet concise enough to serve as a practical guide for those who wish to advance a change initiative in their practice or a comprehensive theory that understands organizations and guides change approaches (Van de Ven & Poole, 1995; Dunphy, 1981). This mutually exclusive approach to change has resulted in a mixture of change models that often fail to promote the general understanding of this subject matter, even though they all contain elements of truth.

One of the first individuals to study change theoretically was Lewin who, in the 1950s, led a group of social psychologists studying organizational change. They immersed themselves in a culture with managers inside organizations (Kleiner, 2008). Lewin and his colleagues described change as involving an unfreezing process, learning or changing process, and a refreezing process. Practitioners keen to follow Lewin’s (1947) approach to change concentrated on best practices for successful implementation of change, and provided models, frameworks, tools, and cases to assist practitioners in managing change more effectively (Ackerman-Anderson & Anderson, 2001; Kotter, 1996).

There are a variety of ways of categorizing the majority of the change management models that provide prescriptive steps of what to do and what not to do (Dunphy, 1981; Kanter, 1983; Kotter, 1996). These models have largely been developed from the authors’ experiences with companies either as consultants and/or researchers. Groupings of change management models are available that provide specific diagnostic tools and approaches to support key change management issues, such as resistance to change (Eriksson, 2004; Kotter & Schlesinger, 1979), rates of adoption of change for individuals (Huy, 2001), communications (Barrett, Thomas, & Hocevar, 1995; Ford & Ford, 1995), and organizational culture (Schein, 1984; 1992; 2009).

Many authors, scholars, and researchers have described the steps involved in planning and managing change. Kotter (1996) described eight steps to transforming an organization, including establishing a sense of urgency, forming a powerful guiding coalition, creating a vision, communicating the vision, empowering others to act on the vision, planning for and creating short-term wins, consolidating improvements and producing still more change, and institutionalizing new approaches. Ackerman-Anderson and Anderson (2001) describe a change leadership process that is continuous and non-linear, and incorporates an evaluation component. Their steps include: preparing to lead the change, creating vision, commitment and capacity, assessing the situation and determining design requirements, designing the desired state, analyzing the impact, planning and organizing for implementation, implementing the change, celebrating and integrating the new state, and learning and course-correcting. Authors Van de Ven and Poole (1995) addressed change from the perspective of life cycle changes, teleological, dialectical, and evolutionary changes. Their conclusion suggests that each theory is typically incomplete in its description and classification of change because organizations do not exist within a vacuum and one theory can address the assumptions of another.

The field of organizational development and change is widely known for its large spectrum of theories that strive to understand and explain individual, group, and organizational change. Historically, these diverse theories have haphazardly combined and crossed levels of abstraction and analysis. Porras and Robertson (1987) developed two types of organizational development theory that help to exemplify the ongoing tension between the theory of change and the practice of changing. They stated that the findings of academic research associated with change theory should inform practice. Their contribution of implementation theory focuses on the intervention activities needed to execute effective planned change.

Understanding organizational change requires more than one theory (Dunphy, 1981; Dunphy & Stace, 1988). Dunphy further considered the components of a comprehensive theory of organizational change. Frameworks such as this allow us to evaluate theoretical approaches and determine whether the theory is complete, allow us to compare theoretical traditions, and determine whether they are similar or different. This provides a greater understanding about the ways in which we would direct our attention in analysis with regard to internal or external factors affecting the organization, and to the levels of analysis with key groups within the workforce.

Though there have been recent developments in refining change theory, it is important to note that my use of change theory in this paper is done in a very broad sense. Continual refinements in change theory will have strong parallel implications for implementation. Businesses are recognizing that change continues to build at an alarming rate, it is viewed as a continuous process, and that a systematic and disciplined structure is required for managing this tremendous amount of change.

Role of Research and Integration

Research is not often used as a basis for action in organizations and the experience of organizations are not used as a basis for generalizing theory. This has been, and remains, a significant learning opportunity for integration of scholarship and practice. The following example explores the nature of integration of scholarship and practice across the multi-disciplinary field of change management. This offers insights into the perspectives, methodologies, and frameworks of theoretical scholarship and practice. In the following section, I will (1) explore an understanding of what academic theories, models, and research inform the practice, (2) observe whether or not the extent to which these theories and models are consulted to make decisions regarding interventions; and, (3) comment on the ways in which an integration of scholarship and research be integrated into the practice of organizational change.

By carrying out research, focusing on a real business situation, interesting results are often found. The change process evaluated in this paper describes how a large Canadian utility developed and approved an information technology strategy that called for replacement of business systems and processes. To commence implementation of this information technology strategy, the company initiated a business transformation strategy. In order to achieve this transformation strategy, a project was put in place to replace core, enterprise, information technology systems, and transform the corporate culture. What companies have realized today is that there is a need to successfully manage this tremendous amount of organizational change in order to remain competitive and to improve business performance.

The question this case scenario asks is: Did this organization use formal change management techniques based on organizational change theory to ensure the success of change initiatives? And, I ask, why should an integrated conceptual framework and methodology for managing change initiatives be considered an important discipline in the business environment? For a change project to be successfully managed, the change it creates must be approached in the same disciplined manner (Harrington, Conner, & Horney, 2002). A number of change management and project management models adopted by businesses today are designed to assist change projects that are intended to create new business processes or transform existing ones to accomplish major goals that projects bring to the organization. With the variety of models, frameworks, and theoretical perspectives available (Ackerman-Anderson & Anderson, 2001; Beer & Nohia, 2000; Dunphy, 1981; Kanter, 1983; Kotter, 1996), many agree that organizational transformations involving large-scale, strategic change require a planned approach, a road map for providing direction on how to arrive at an organization’s desired state.

Given a common definition for change management as a set of processes that are employed to ensure that significant changes are implemented in an orderly, controlled, and systematic fashion to effect organizational change (Ackerman-Anderson & Anderson, 2001; Cowan-Sahadath, 2010; Griffith-Cooper & King 2007; Harrington, Conner, & Horney, 2002) and the review of literature and research on organizational change theory described earlier, I have shown that a one-size-fits-all approach to change management is not sufficient in order to successfully manage and adapt to project initiated change. To be effective at leading change, companies need to customize and scale their change management efforts, based on the unique characteristics of the change and the culture of the organization experiencing a change.

My work is informed by my experience as an internal change management consultant. Incorporating expertise offered by scholars, in addition to practitioner experience, links relevant theory to a series of concrete and practical steps that one can execute via an integrated framework. Questions I might start with include: Would you design and implement major organization change based on an approach or framework that is supported by research and validation? Will the framework accelerate the achievement of your stated outcomes?

I now present a high-level overview of an Integrated Change Framework (Cowan Sahadath, 2010) that includes an integration of multidisciplinary theories and research to help plan, design, and implement organization and people changes. It organizes processes for moving the organization from its current status to where it needs to be to ensure continued success in the business. As a framework, it does not specify what to change; instead, it provides guidance for how to change so that you accomplish your intended business outcomes while simultaneously engaging the people in the organization in positive ways. The Framework is organized using a project management methodology with each of the phases identified clearly along with their respective activities and tasks and incorporates change management processes.

An Integrated Change Framework

The elements of the Integrated Change Framework represent the inherent logic and flow of activities for leading and achieving real change. This conceptual framework provides a set of coherent ideas organized for communication purposes, to assist in understanding the interconnections of activities and elements, and provides a basis for thinking about what we do and what it means. The author developed this integrated conceptual framework for project change leadership (Figure 1). Figure 1 depicts the conceptual framework of this change management approach, set in the context of a dynamic organizational environment, focusing on the context of leaders at work, and subject to the employer’s organizational change agenda and corporate strategy. The role for leadership operates at every intersection of the framework, however of particular focus in this framework is the focus on leaderships role within the change management framework.

Figure 1. Conceptual framework – Integrated model for change

Figure 1. Conceptual framework – Integrated model for change
Examining the Business Environment

During the implementation of this integrated change management framework, the business recalled past projects and change initiatives in which a change initiative faltered because the vision did not provide others with the necessary direction or support to make the change happen. There were examples where people or groups were more relationship-driven, yet nothing concrete was accomplished. Given the complexity of the example discussed in this paper, the leadership team recognized the need for a proven, mature project management methodology and effective communications, change management techniques, training, and project staff management processes.

Change Management Framework

A structured approach to change is used to describe the management of change in this business. It represents aligning relevant combinations of people, processes, policies, practices, strategies and/or systems in the organization in order to make change happen in a structured, systematic manner. It involves elements of the company’s mission, vision, and values, and a project management methodology providing the foundation for all change in the organization. All change initiatives are grounded in and demonstrate clear and strong support to one or more of the organization’s mission, vision, and values. The business case for change identified what combination(s) of people, processes, policies, practices, strategies and/or systems were not aligned and the implications for the misalignment on the business for fulfilling its mission and/or achieving its vision and/or living by its values.

The desired future articulates what a stronger alignment of people, processes, policies, practices, strategies and/or systems would actually look like and how that alignment would strengthen the organization in fulfilling its mission and/or achieving its vision and/or living by its values. The readiness level of key stakeholders (those directly affected by the change or those who have influence over others) must be assessed, including: how they perceive the benefits from the change, their dissatisfaction with the existing situation, how they perceive the effort required to make the change, and how they perceive the challenges associated with the change. This assessment influences the strategies and plans that need to be followed in dealing with key stakeholders. The strategy addresses the fundamental “how” in achieving the desired future, given the readiness levels of key stakeholders. In the face of strong support for the change, the strategy may be to drive it forward in a short period of time, with a minimum level of engagement. In the face of strong resistance, however, the strategy may involve a higher degree of engagement over a longer timeframe. The plan to get to the desired future details the results to be achieved, actions to be taken to get there, accountability for those actions, a time frame for completion and measures to assess progress.

Implementation is the movement forward with the strategy and plan with a strong focus on measurement of both the processes and results, and a willingness to consider revisions to the plan in the face of unforeseen. Sustainment establishes processes and ownership of those processes to ensure against slippage of the alignment that has been achieved and its results, so that they become an ongoing part of the organization and how it works. Lessons learned identifies what is working and not working and why in bringing about change. It assesses both the process and the results and needs to be conducted at periodic stages of alignment initiatives, not just at its conclusion.

Project Management Framework

The leadership team recognized the need for a proven, mature project management methodology and effective communications, change management plans, employee engagement, and management accountabilities. Integrated strategic change strategies and organizational systems are coordinated in response to external and internal influences. An example would be a strategic change plan that is developed to help employees manage the transition between a current strategy and organization design and the desired future strategic orientation.

In the early stages of the project life cycle there was an opportunity to build a foundation for managing the change, assessing how the impact would affect the people and the organization through project sponsorship. To establish a realistic change framework for managing change at this company, they needed to change the way they would lead change. One of the leading contributors to project success was strong, visible sponsorship and leadership. The literature on change leadership implies that leaders have a responsibility to guide an organization through a course of change by providing direction and support throughout the process (Ackerman-Anderson & Anderson, 2001; Griffith-Cooper & King, 2007). Leaders are encouraged to demonstrate change leadership behaviours, set a vision, and communicate effectively in a way that their organization understands and will want to follow the new direction of change (Kotter, 2005). In this review, the change management and project management models adopted by this organization, integrated the management of the tremendous amount of change the project brings to the organization. Management of this project and the changing business environment was best managed by focused project management and effectively managing the changes through a formal framework.

Organizational Performance

While the project management and change management practitioner communities suggest that integrated frameworks are applied for managing change in organizations (Harrington, Conner, & Horney, 2002; Kotter, 1996), the research community has been slow to recognize the interaction and value between change management and project management in implementing change (Griffith-Cooper & King 2007; Thomas & Mullaly, 2008). I suggested earlier that one approach to change management is not sufficient in order to successfully manage and adapt to project initiated change. To be effective at leading change, companies need to adapt and scale their change management efforts, based on the unique characteristics of the change and the culture of the organization experiencing a change. The context in which this organization operates, including its history and culture, have a significant impact on its ability to manage change. It was important for a company to examine the business’ current circumstance and recent history and the challenges they represent to the successful implementation of a change initiative. Cultural differences are legitimate outgrowths of the distinct nature of the work, and some are unnecessary “silos” that get in the way of operational efficiency and co-operation.

In light of all of these challenges—past, current, and future—effective change management will represent the most important prerequisite to success with future change initiatives. It has been essential that the organization understands the cultural challenges faced in times of such rapid implementation and change. Reviewing these challenges and the systems and contexts that affect the operation of the business, provides a foundation of understanding on which to base research and in selecting change management frameworks grounded in theory. This understanding leads to practical application that supports intended business needs and outcomes.

Context for Integrating Research and Practice for Success

The purpose of this paper suggested that a deeper understanding of the complexity of change initiatives be understood; and, exploring the change management frameworks upon which classical change theory has been developed, would explain how and why particular things happen or do not happen. Some of these theories are vague conceptualizations about what will happen if we act in a certain way, in a certain situation, and what we might expect from others. But many of the theories we hold are more complex and express our understandings of, for example, how organizations work, and how organizations and people react to change.

In order to link theoretical knowledge to practice, as a scholar practitioner, I have begun to see the clear link from theory and what works within the organization. Without this experience though, theory can become something that seems abstract. From a practitioner perspective, with this particular example in mind, I can determine that the change frameworks have been developed based on theory, however complex they may appear. Essentially, theory helps to explain a situation, describe what is happening, explain why is it happening, and often, predict what is likely to happen next. This is of tremendous value to the practitioner. In addition, I observed whether or not the extent to which these theories and models are consulted to make decisions regarding interventions. The Integrated Change Framework applied in this example incorporated process steps that design the implementation, and plans the initial event. Internal consultants and leaders view the initial event or intervention as a non-linear and continuous change activity and assume there is much to learn from the experience. Throughout the implementation, internal consultants and leaders observe the results, often taking time as a group to discuss what is happening and how the implementation might be adjusted in the future. Adjustments and course corrections are also made, based on experience with similar events and past implementations. After the event, there is a debrief on how the process went, decision on whether or not to continue to develop further concepts, and planning for the next steps. There is also discussion regarding what patterns were observed and how they relate to past observations, not going as far as developing formal theory, but certainly continuing to build our own theories on how the organization works.

Experienced practitioners already know many meaningful practices. If academic research can add to these, it must proceed from a theory of what experienced practitioners fail to know and why they fail to know it. Research energy can be invested in, improving the understanding of highly-skilled practitioners, practitioners with limited skills or experience, and academic researchers. Adopting a variety of theories in this work offers us, as scholar practitioners, the ability to make sense of a situation, the ability to generate ideas about what is going on, and why things are as they are; using theory can help to justify actions and explain practice. The scholar brings the theoretical tools for analysis and critical reflection and the practitioner contributes through experience and access to multiple layers of practical knowledge within the organization.

 

About the Author

Kathy Cowan Sahadath

Kathy Cowan Sahadath is a Program Manager and Change Leader in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Her current position involves supporting the increasing number of strategic organizational change transformations. She specifically addresses the people side of change at all levels of an organization, working in concert with business leaders, project leaders, and with change teams. Their aim is to improve overall organizational capacity for managing change, by developing and mentoring change leaders from within the business and supporting them as they take on change-related assignments.

Kathy’s professional education includes an undergraduate degree from the University of Waterloo in Psychology, an MBA in Project Management from Athabasca University, a Masters of Arts degree in Human and Organizational Development from Fielding Graduate University, and a PhD in Human and Organizational Systems specializing in the area of organizational change and leadership also from Fielding Graduate University, in Santa Barbara California.

In addition to Kathy’s corporate responsibilities, she is involved as a volunteer/board member with the Project Management Institute, Project Research Institute, Toronto Forum on Organizational Change, The International Council on Organizational Change, the Academy of Management, and the Association of Change Management Professionals.

 

References

Ackerman-Anderson, Linda, and Dean Anderson. “Awake at the wheel: Moving beyond change management to conscious change leadership.” OD Practitioner 33, no. 3 (2001): 4-10.

Barrett, Frank J., Gail F. Thomas, and Susan P. Hocevar. “The Central Role of Discourse in Large-Scale Change: A Social Construction Perspective.” Journal of Applied Behavioral Science 31, no. 3 (1995): 352-372.

Beer, Michael, and Nitin Nohria. Breaking the code of change. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business School Press: 2000.

Bentz, Valerie, and Jeremy Shapiro. Mindful inquiry in social research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1999.

Cowan-Sahadath, Kathy. “Business transformation: Leadership, integration and innovation – A case study.” International Journal of Project Management 28, no. 4 (2010): 395-404.

Dunphy, Dexter. Organizational change by choice. Sydney: McGraw-Hill, 1981.

Dunphy, Dexter, and Doug Stace. “The strategic management of corporate change.” Human Relations 46, no. 8 (1988): 905-920.

Eriksson, Carin. B.” The effects of change programs on employee’s emotions.” Personnel Review 33, no. 1 (2004): 110-126.

Ford, Jeffrey D., and Laurie W. Ford. “The Role of Conversations in Producing Intentional Change in Organizations.” Academy of Management Review 20, no. 3 (1995): 541-570.

Griffith-Cooper, Barber, and Karyl King. “The partnership between project management and organizational change: Integrating change management with change leadership.” Performance Improvement 46, no. 1 (2007): 14-20.

Harrington, H. James, Darryl Conner, and Nicholas F. Horney. Project Change Management. New York: McGraw-Hill Companies, 2000.

Huy, Quy Nguyen. “Time, temporal capability, and planned change.” Academy of Management Review 26, no. 4 (2001): 601-623.

Kanter, Rosabeth Moss. The change masters: Innovation and entrepreneurship in the American Corporation. New York: Touchstone, 1983.

Kleiner, Art. The Age of Heretics: A History of the Radical Thinkers Who Reinvented Corporate Managements. Toronto: Doubleday, 2008.

Kotter, John P. Leading Change. Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1996.

Kotter, John P. Change leadership. Leadership Excellence. Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2005.

Kotter, John P., and Leonard A. Schlesinger. “Choosing strategies for change.” Harvard Business Review 57, no. 2 (1979): 106-14.

Lewin, Kurt. “Frontiers in Group Dynamics: II. Channels of Group Life; Social Planning and Action Research.” Human Relations 1, no. 2 (1947): 143-153.

Porras, Jerry I., and Peter J. Robertson. “Organization development theory: A typology and evaluation.” In W.A. Pasmore & R.W. Woodman (Eds.), Research in organizational change and development, 1, (1987): 1-57. Greenwich, CT: JAI Press.

Schein, Edgar H. “Coming to a new awareness of organizational culture.” MIT Sloan Management Review 25, no. 2 (1984): 3-16.

Schein, Edgar H. Organizational Culture and Leadership (2nd Ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1992.

Schein, Edgar H. The Corporate Culture Survival Guide. San Francisco: John Wiley and Sons, 2009.

Thomas, Janice, and Mark Mullaly. Researching the value of project management. Newtown Square, Pennsylvania: Project Management Institute, Inc., 2008.

Van de Ven, Andrew, and M. Scott Poole. “Explaining development and change in organizations.” Academy of Management Review 20, no. 3 (1995): 510-540.

The Forgotten Risk: Dealing with Project Manager Departures

Projects are often the means by which much change is instituted within organizations. As such, the literature and concern with project management are also increasing. There does not seem to be the attention in the literature that specifically looks at the impact when a change in project leadership occurs during the life-cycle of a project. This is an important practical concern and project risk, as it happens often enough to be raised by senior executives. Given that there is little evidence in the project management literature, I have turned to the literature in the management field on leadership, change management, and dealing with the unexpected that provides some insights.

I begin with an exploration of the role and importance of the project leader, and then discuss the types of changes going on in organizations that might impact project leadership. I conclude by evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of the literature reviewed in helping us deal with this practical problem. Finally, I provide recommendations for practitioners facing this situation and for further research in this area.

Key Leadership Characteristics For Successful Projects

This review recognized that there are many levels of leadership required within a project, however for the purposes of this review, I focus on the project leader/manager as the person responsible for the overall execution of the project (Briner, Hastings, & Geddes, 2001). I want to focus on when a project leader change takes place mid-project and how this loss impacts the project. Having an understanding of the role of the project leader and competencies required for a successful project outcome, will help the reader understand the impacts caused by a sudden leadership departure.

There seems to be general agreement on common characteristics required of project managers including a variety of leadership and interpersonal skills, organizational competencies, technical expertise, team building, project management, and relationship skills (Ammeter & Dukerich, 2002; Benimadhu, 2003a-b; Mourier & Smith, 2001; Pinto, 1998; Story, 2003). Likewise, Pinto (1998) and Mourier and Smith (2001) underscore the value that the leadership component of the project manager’s role is one of the single most important characteristics in successfully implementing projects. While there are a number of factors related to the success of organizational change efforts, among them is having a strong project manager. And intuitively, Mourier and Smith add that correlated with failure, is a project manager’s departure before the project is completed. This suggests that it is the project team leader who is a critical component to the success of the project and, in fact, may be perceived by team members as highly influential on the performance of the project team.

As projects increasingly become the means by which major organizational change is instituted, project manager skills and behaviours have greater influence on contributing to the success of projects; projects that are both complex and continually affected by change. Several Corporate Leadership Council Research studies (2003a-d) indicate that companies undergoing corporate transformation are at risk of the change initiative failing, due to people issues. Their work supports this paper’s theory that losing key people will contribute to this risk and that strong leadership is essential to successful change implementation. While their specific findings address broad corporate transformations, if we consider the project environment during this time of transformation as characterized by any number of changes: personnel changes, resource shortfalls, budget cuts, design failures, requests that speed up delivery, management changes, new government regulations, and the list goes on (Deeprose, 2001; Kotter, 1996, 2005), they all add to the complexity, urgency, and impact on the organization and team.

While any number of changes can affect organizations today, my focus, the change that influences project manager departures from projects, warrants a closer look at what might be the contributing factors to those unexpected departures occurring prior to the completion of a project. In particular, losing a key project leader is fundamentally important to project success and businesses should understand the importance of understanding the impact of leadership change on a project.

The developing model (Table 1) illustrates the types of factors affecting organizations that contribute to project manager turnover. Given today’s turbulent and uncertain business environment, I suggest that organizations consider the following model to understand the change drivers contributing to unexpected turnover of project leaders. This model outlines:

  • Contributing Factors to Changes
  • Impact on Projects contributing to Project Risk
  • Impacts on Project Team Members

This model lays out the root causes, impacts on projects and the organization, and team member perceptions that have to be addressed. Depending on the impact, the model indicates the possibility or project risk the unexpected change in project leadership has.

Given the limited research on managing the risk of a project manager/leader change in the literature, this might suggest, as my article title indicates, that this a hidden risk on projects.

Table 1
Contributing Factors to Changes in Project Leadership

Contributing Factors to Unexpected Turnover of Project Managers

Impact on Projects

Short-Term
Strategic Options

 Long-Term Strategic Options

Labour market

  • Macroeconomic growth
  • Consumer changes
Scarce skilled resources

High turnover due to other opportunities

Disruption to project continuity

Offer challenging work

Competitive compensation

Strategic planning
Organizational

  • Leaner, more dynamic
  • Restructuring, downsizing, acquisitions
  • Business models becoming obsolete
Availability of resources to draw from at all levels

Difficult to predict whether employees will still be around

Loss of job security

Huge costs in process re-engineering and improvement initiatives

Lack of motivation within organization for projects of this type (flavour of the month)

Offer challenging work

Create sense of urgency

Honesty about business case

Multi-skilled leaders in leadership and project management competencies

Create career opportunities

Business Changes

  • Organizational priorities shift
  • Increase in change initiatives
  • More complex and global business challenges
Inconvenience, transform, or terminate project

Transition to project culture and adapt to team’s working behaviours

Time and quality of information provided by team members, hidden agendas, trust might take time to re-develop

Too much to manage

Too few and different capabilities required

Understanding cultural issues

Watch for signs and prepare for changes before they happen

Seek alternative resourcing options including external

Strategic planning to remain focused on key business priorities
Crisis Events

  • The boss drops dead
  • Catastrophe
Shock and unexpected effect on team members

Unexpectedness leading to unprepared replacement plan or inexperienced/not fully capable replacement

Information/knowledge not documented/shared

Counseling services provided to team

Ensure appropriate documentation procedures in place

Develop a high reliability performance organization, practicing mindfulness
Human Resources

  • Lessening organizational loyalty
  • Rapid turnover of senior staff
  • Incompetence
  • Increased importance of human capital
  • ‘Accidental’ project managers assigned due to availability
Quick and frequent departures

Mindset/expectations and priorities of employees are different/changing and need to be managed differently

Team unity (i.e., team member behaviours become guarded, control becomes an issue)

Feeling loss of senior management support

Questioning roles and responsibilities; team struggles with issues, assessing whether their roles will change or be understood by new leader

Frustration, lack of hope, lack of commitment

Lack of results

Departed can become an easy target to blame project weaknesses

Competition both internally and externally for resources

Knowledge gap

Competitive compensation

Challenging work

Networking opportunities

Team workarounds

Reporting and monitoring

Paying attention to results

Operational audit

Strong team skills

Project manager selection review process

Legally contract to end of project

Maintaining organizational competitive advantage

Succession management

Knowledge management

New thinking and new frameworks

Filling the knowledge gap through resourcing plans

Managing the Risk

What can organizations do before losing a key project leader to mitigate the risk of this unexpected event? Weick and Sutcliff’s (2001) work suggests that high reliability organizations have developed ways of managing the unexpected and demonstrate five characteristics:

  • Preoccupation with failures rather than successes
  • Reluctance to simplify interpretations
  • Sensitivity to operations
  • Commitment to resilience
  • Deference to expertise

Organizations that establish themselves by these characteristics are better able to notice the unexpected. Weick and Sutcliff term this “mindfulness” (p. 17). For the purposes of this review and how a change in leadership affects a project, Weick and Sutcliff is suggesting that if your organization is a high reliability organization and demonstrates mindfulness, then the capability for catching the unexpected happens earlier. This means the organization would be in a position to see the signs that a leader might jump ship or leave for better opportunities, thus minimizing the impact felt by the organization and the project team. Identifying the unexpected does not disable these organizations and their ability to cope does not make the situation worse by being caught off guard.

Anticipating and becoming aware of the unexpected before problems become severe requires taking action before the event happens. This requires watching for signs in the organization regarding resource trends/movements and putting measures in place before project managers depart. Containing the unexpected when it does occur would require equipping project team members as well as senior management to develop capabilities to cope with project manager departures, swift learning, and flexible role structures. Weick and Sutcliff suggest that high reliability organizations would be capable of helping people bounce back from unexpected events after they begin to occur quicker.

Managing the Unexpected

How is the project affected after the fact, is this a project risk that has been overlooked as an increasingly common project occurrence? What transitions take place when a project leader leaves mid-project, what mechanisms does a company have in place to address this change in leadership?

The developing model outlined in this paper suggests a number of key contributing factors that might lead to unexpected changes in project leadership. The questions in the preceding paragraph suggest the complexity of this situation. These questions have been addressed by several researchers (Conner, 1993; Harrington, Conner, & Horney 2000; Pullen 1993; Weick & Sutcliff, 2001) and provide interesting insight into managing under trying conditions.

The organization can anticipate and develop an awareness of the unexpected and act before problems become severe, watching for signs in the organization regarding resources and putting measures in place before project managers depart. Perhaps Pullen’s (1993) Strategic Shocks: Managing Discontinuous Change further supports an abrupt leadership change characterized by uncertainty, as a risk. His advice suggests developing a strategy for managing this discontinuous change, in our case, a project manager departure represents this discontinuous change. Following this abrupt leadership change, there is a period of uncertainty experienced by team members and a need for the organization to quickly consider the different perceptions that team members may experience under our different scenarios of project manager departure. What would you have to do to manage those perceptions/expectations?

Understanding the reasons project managers leave and the impact the departure has on projects is the first step in addressing issues for this project risk and in developing strategies for preventing the event and managing the transition. Part of assessing the situation involves looking at the affects the change has had on the project team and stakeholder population and developing strategies for managing the perceptions and expectations. This becomes evident in reviewing our developing model that indicates that varying contributors to project manager departures sets off a variety of impacts on projects, differing perceptions, and emotions from team members leading to the development of strategies for both the short-term and long-term.

So where does this leave the project? We have looked at contributing reasons for project manager departures, the impact on organizations and projects, and reactions by team members. This model indicates that the reactions and resulting impacts vary depending on the contributing reasons for the departure. So how can organizations manage this, how are some organizations managing this now?

Managing the Transition

Work by Kotter (1996, 2005), Roberto (2002), and Pullen (1993) supports the need for planning, strategy, and good management in managing organizational change. Roberto recognizes that leaders must cope with ambiguity and uncertainty and to make sense of this and to deal with it effectively, it involves redefining the situation in small steps. This has merit, given our situation, as project managers leave a project for a variety of reasons outlined in our model. The organization selecting the incoming project manager and the incoming project manager need to develop strategies that assess the situation into manageable pieces and have a variety of strategies to use. These strategies are dependent on the situation and reason for project manager departure in the first place. Developing a variety of strategies that simplifies this complex situation allows managers to make sense of their confusing situation.

The incoming manager can develop responses to this period of uncertainty experienced by team members and stakeholders. The strategy and subsequent plan will depend on the reason for the project manager’s departure and an assessment of how things are handled. Key aspects of this plan should focus on strong leadership, an emphasis on the team and or groups within the project, improving and sustaining improved internal communications, and providing counseling, should the situation warrant it (Pullen, 1993). These responses strongly support this model and an understanding that the unexpected departure of a project manager for reasons associated with business and human resource changes has the greatest impact on project team influences such as team member behaviors, questioning roles, and team unity.

Sudden changes in leadership can be costly, no matter how well they are handled and managed (Parker & Skitmore, 2005). In order to minimize the impact and avoid disaster, the focus needs to be on not only what the incoming project manager might do, but also the selection of the right replacement. We know that the project leader has a tremendous influence on team members and on the success of the project. The significance of a leadership change can lead to team members having to adjust to a new leadership style and approach. It is important that the leadership replacement is on the same page as senior management and the project sponsor and that communication of expectations is clear. Selecting the right replacement leader is further supported by the work of Harrington et al. (2003). Harrington et al’s work demonstrated that good leadership is essential for dealing with unexpected events and unanticipated risks and that the key leadership characteristics include team building, resilience in the face of change, successful negotiation, clear communication, and effective project management.

The new incoming project manager and the right project manager can contain the affects of this change when it does occur. Developing a plan that focuses on helping people bounce back from unexpected events is a small first step. Equipping project team members and senior management with capabilities and an awareness to cope with project manager departures can help ease the transition. As senior management has a role to play in this transition, we can now turn our attention to the organization’s role in managing project manager departures and minimizing the risk to the organization and projects in general.

Managing the Transition and Succession Planning

Reviewing the literature on succession planning provided insight into how organizations think about and deal with the risks associated with rapid turnover in leaders. Several researchers (Mellina, 2003; Sauer, Li, & Johnston, 2001) all support the need to identify backups for key management positions and create a pool of skilled project managers because changes occur more quickly now than in the past. The reality is if a key management person drops out of the picture unexpectedly, it puts the company at risk. Much of the work in this area recognizes the impact of losing a project leader mid-way through implementation of a high visibility assignment (i.e., change initiative or project) but does not address what needs to be done. While Sauer, Li, and Johnston (2001) and Longenecker and Scazzero’s (2003) work is specific to IT firms, they go a step further in identifying the need for development plans and processes in place to support project management leadership capability. Thus, once the organization has project managers with the skills, then the appropriate assignment of project managers to projects can be made.

I found that characteristics of replacement planning and succession planning programs tend to emphasize the ability to anticipate short-term, unexpected departures of senior managers, while succession management systems offer some depth and breadth in managing layers of senior leadership and their supply routes. And in some succession planning literature, I found that it is questionable whether succession planning is really of value when business requirements change so rapidly. For example, Parker and Skitmore (2005) suggest today’s rapidly changing business environment makes it impossible to predict who will still be around, what positions will exist in the future. This is important for organizations to recognize, as it may be a contributing factor to why firms are not engaging great effort to identify and develop project leaders/managers.

The literature (Mellina, 2003; Parker & Skitmore, 2005; Sauer, Li, & Johnston, 2001) strongly supports a dynamic, changing business environment and the need to develop key leadership talent in response to this environment; however it is Parker and Skitmore’s work that provides an understanding into the unexpected affect this has on team members and the potential risk this creates for the project.

Given this brief literature overview, it suggests that in dealing with the unexpected departure of a project leader, companies can develop succession plans and have a number of approaches to consider so there is a reservoir of talent and bench strength available to replace a project manager. An organization that moves in the direction of developing a pool of resources, where leaders are available who can take over at a moment’s notice, who can meet organizational and future needs, provides companies with the needed flexibility and confidence that they will have the leadership talent when needed. Succession plans that are living documents that take into account the unexpected also places an organization in a position to react quickly and with the assurance a project will be lead to a successful completion.

It is widely accepted that dynamic changes are taking place within business and project environments, affecting the stability of project manager tenure. Most of the literature is practical and does not clearly connect the impacts of project manager departures to the project, to team members, or to the organization. Some researchers have shown the need for developing transition plans, but evidently more research is required in this area.

Recommendations

Where do we go from here? The key challenge in addressing this project risk is to create and identify strategies, programs, and opportunities that build on how, when, and why leaders change unexpectedly and link these changes to strategies for transitioning team members in order to ensure continued project success. I suggest a number of short-term recommendations that both the organization and the individual project manager should adopt, offering a quick solution to the situation. I also provide some long-term recommendations.

Short-Term Recommendations

For the Incoming Project Manager:
  1. Develop a transition plan to help the project team deal with this unexpected change. Reassess where the project team has developed to and ensure there is alignment on common purpose and goals; re-establish roles, accountabilities and working relationships. Become familiar with teamwork plans and how things are done.
  2. Provide counseling to manage the uncertainty, stress and possibility of reduced productivity.
  3. Implement motivational fixes to address lagging motivation. Celebrate success, demonstrate appreciation for team members’ efforts, and refocus on the project goal.
For the Organization:
  1. Prepare the organization and its leaders to cope with constant change and transitions that require reorientation or re-creation. This involves developing the necessary skills in leaders and staff.
  2. Create practical strategies that managers can use to engage and retain talent, such as a compensation strategy focused on retention and creating a management style and corporate environment that is supportive.
  3. Challenge leaders with opportunities that keep them at the cutting edge of their profession and equip them with the skills to meet the organization’s current and future needs.
  4. Identify within the project plan, training replacements, shadowing opportunities, and rotations; ensure a resource plan has been created, recognizing key issues, compensation initiatives, challenging work, and legal contracts that specify commitment to the end of project.

Long-Term Recommendations

For the Organization:
  1. Develop a pool of backup resources for developing project manager capability.
  2. Examine the external and internal supply routes for developing project managers and for ensuring that resources are available for unexpected events.

There are a number of short-term and long-term recommendations listed in Table 1; however, for the purposes of this paper I have selected a number of key recommendations to emphasize immediate actions that can be taken. This paper recognizes the need for taking this research further and exploring how organizations develop and implement actions for coping with the unexpected departure of project managers.

Future Research Agenda

This review set out to discover what management literature there is to help organizations deal with the need to replace a project manager mid-project and I have found that more work needs to be done. Below are some ideas for future research on dealing with project management departures.

  1. Limited information could be found in the management literature. If frequent, unexpected changes to project leadership is a serious risk to the project, then a number of areas could be further explored:
    1. Acknowledge the risk once identified and assessed as having an impact on the project
    2. Incorporate into contingency plans.
    3. Identifying the risks of staff turnover – managing from both a planned perspective and being able to manage the unplanned staff turnover.
  2. The literature provides guidance on the after situation, after the unexpected turnover has occurred, rather than the before situation, when the event has been recognized. This is a gap that needs to be explored.
  3. What kind of change management tactics do organizations employ to facilitate the transition from project manager to incoming project manager?
  4. What methods should companies utilize to support leaders during this transition?
  5. How do companies retain key project leaders during high periods of change?

We know that the marketplace is more volatile, with a higher degree of uncertainty, and that turnover of key executives and leaders is rapidly increasing. These recommendations assist organizations and project practitioners in understanding the impact felt by organizations and teams when project leaders depart unexpectedly.

 

About the Author

Kathy Cowan Sahadath

Kathy Cowan Sahadath is a Program Manager and Change Leader in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Her current position involves supporting the increasing number of strategic organizational change transformations. She specifically addresses the people side of change at all levels of an organization, working in concert with business leaders, project leaders, and with change teams. Their aim is to improve overall organizational capacity for managing change, by developing and mentoring change leaders from within the business and supporting them as they take on change-related assignments.

Kathy’s professional education includes an undergraduate degree from the University of Waterloo in Psychology, an MBA in Project Management from Athabasca University, a Masters of Arts degree in Human and Organizational Development from Fielding Graduate University, and a PhD in Human and Organizational Systems specializing in the area of organizational change and leadership also from Fielding Graduate University, in Santa Barbara California.

In addition to Kathy’s corporate responsibilities, she is involved as a volunteer/board member with the Project Management Institute, Project Research Institute, Toronto Forum on Organizational Change, The International Council on Organizational Change, the Academy of Management, and the Association of Change Management Professionals.

 

References

Ammeter, Anthony P., and Janet M. Dukerich. “Leadership, team building, and team member characteristics in high performance project teams.” Engineering Management Journal 14, no. 4 (2002): 3-10.

Benimadhu, Prem. The Conference Board’s Leaders’ Dialogue on Leadership. Ottawa: The Conference Board of Canada, 2003a.

Benimadhu, Prem. Leaders on Leadership: Pat Daniel – An Authentic Voice. Ottawa: The Conference Board of Canada, 2003b.

Briner, Wendy, Colin Hastings, and Michael Geddes. Project Leadership. Aldershot: England, Gower Ashgate Publishing Company, 2001.

Byrne, John A. “How to Lead Now: Getting Extraordinary Performance When You Can’t Pay For it.” Fast Company, (August 2003): 62-70

Conner, Darryl R. Managing at the Speed of Change: How Resilient Managers Succeed and Prosper Where Others Fail. New York: Villard Books, 1993.

Corporate Leadership Council. Structuring Emerging Leaders Programs. Arlington, Virginia: Corporate Executive Board, 2003a.

Corporate Leadership Council. Trends in Leadership Development Strategies. Arlington, Virginia: Corporate Executive Board, 2003b.

Corporate Leadership Council. Succession Management Resource Centre. Managing the Talent Portfolio. Arlington, Virginia: Corporate Executive Board, 2003c.

Corporate Leadership Council. An Overview of Effective Leadership Characteristics and Development Activities. Arlington, Virginia: Corporate Executive Board, 2003d.

Deeprose, Donna. Smart Things to Know About Managing Projects. Oxford, United Kingdom: Capstone Publishing Ltd., 2001.

Harrington, H. James, Darryl Conner, and Nicholas F. Horney. Project Change Management. New York: McGraw-Hill Companies, 2000.

Kotter, John P. Leading Change. Boston, Massachusetts: Harvard Business School Press, 1996.

Kotter, John P. Change Leadership. Leadership Excellence. Boston, Massachusetts: Harvard Business School Press, 2005.

Longenecker, Clinton O., and Joseph A. Scazzero. “The Turnover and Retention of IT Managers in Rapidly Changing Organizations.” Information Systems Management 19, no. 4 (2003): 58-63.

Mellina, Edmond. “Top Talent Benefits from Change Management.” Canadian HR Reporter, Toronto: Canada, 16, no. 1 (2003): 9-13.

Mourier, Pierre, and Martin R. Smith. Conquering Organizational Change. How to Succeed Where Most Companies Fail. Atlanta, GA: CEP Press, 2001.

Parker, Stephen and Martin R. Skitmore. “Project management turnover: causes and effects on project performance.” International Journal of Project Management 23, no. 3, (2005): 205-214.

Pinto, Jeffrey, and Jeffrey W. Trailer. Leadership Skills for Project Managers. Pennsylvania: Project Management Incorporated, 1998.

Pullen, William. “Strategic Shocks: Managing Discontinuous Change.” The International Journal of Public Sector, University Press Limited, 6, no. 1, 1993.

Roberto, Michael A. “Making Difficult Decisions in Turbulent Times.” Ivey Business Journal, London, February 2002.

Sauer, Christopher, Lui Li, and Kim Johnston. “Where Project Managers are Kings.” Project Management Journal, Project Management Institute, 32, no. 4, 2001: 39-49.

Story, Mark. “Project Management: Saving Time and Money.” New Zealand Management 50, no. 2, (2003): 38-57.

Weick, Karl, and Kathleen Sutcliff. Managing the Unexpected: Assuring High Performance in an Age of Complexity. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2001.

Leadership Conversations: Insights into Organizational Change

Organizational change is a constant factor in the business world and plays a significant role for organizational leadership. On a daily basis, organizations are challenged to improve their business performance and take on new and exciting projects, often as a result of a change in strategy or as a way to increase business effectiveness. Change is increasingly becoming an important part of what leaders do, and communication and conversations are essential to both leadership and organizational change (Marshak, 2002). Not only have change initiatives been on the rise, but the importance of managing individuals through change has been gaining importance (Applebaum, Berke, Taylor, & Vazquez, 2008).

Public and private sector organizations are rethinking their mission, values, and operations against a new 21st century environment (Cinite, Duxbury, & Higgins, 2009). They are looking for opportunities to restructure and transform themselves to take advantage of the opportunities of a globally connected world in which people, driven by values and equipped with knowledge (Mengis & Eppler, 2008), will collaborate and innovate. Leadership conversations will play a pivotal role in making this happen.

In this paper, I address how leadership conversations influence organizational behaviour and shape organizational members’ mindsets. The paper is a summary, based on my own research (Cowan Sahadath, 2010) and attention is focused on how leaders create and sustain conversations during times of unprecedented change. The reader will see how leaders gain a greater appreciation of how closely their conversational behaviors are intertwined with the creation and leadership of change, business effectiveness, and performance.

What are Leadership Conversations?

To effectively navigate and influence the change agenda (Ford & Ford, 1995; 2008), leaders need to be proactively engaged in focusing, shaping, and influencing an organization’s communication through the spoken aspects of conversations (Scott, 2004). Because conversations are a highly flexible, interactive, and iterative form of communication, employees can ask clarifying questions, deepen certain aspects, and explore the larger context of a specific issue. Compared with written communication formats, people create shared experiences through face-to-face conversations. They use these conversations to build trust and strengthen relationships (Mengis & Eppler, 2008) and to influence successful organizational change by relying on different types of conversations (Barrett, Thomas, & Hocevar, 1995; Ford & Ford, 1995).

In the context of this paper and for our discussion, leadership conversations are the verbal interactions between senior leaders and their direct reports. And, because of this definition, the terms communication and conversations are one and the same. The paper will also advocate that the experiences of senior leaders (how senior leaders view their conversations) lead to a deeper understanding of how senior leaders effectively use their conversations to provide context and vision, meaning and purpose, and to influence and shape the change process.

Why are Leadership Conversations so Important?

Based on the conceptual work of Ford and Ford (1995; 2008), change conversations, as a communication vehicle, should be thought of as more than producing intentional organizational change. Change conversations can be used as an instrument in managing the process of change and leaders can persuade and influence others to accept new ideas, to change, to follow, and to take action. Within the structure of an organization, leaders at various levels seek to persuade and influence others (Daft, 2005; Raes, Glunk, Heijltjes, & Roe, 2007). A critical role for leaders today is to influence all levels of leaders and staff within an organization. This ability to influence and persuade results in success for the leader and contributes towards the effectiveness of the organization’s change effort.

Communication becomes extremely important to the essence of leadership effectiveness. A leader’s conversations can positively impact and facilitate the achievement of his or her work-related goals, as well as the achievements of others. Effective communication can produce higher levels of organizational affiliation (O’Neill & Jabri, 2007), improve the dynamics within the organization (Pearce, 2008), and create an open and engaged community within the organization. From this perspective, communication serves as the catalyst for change. The work of the leader in causing successful change in an organization is the work of deliberate and appropriate application of language. The leader’s ability to communicate is key in enabling the organization to make changes appropriately, effectively, and efficiently. Kotter’s (1990; 1996) work on communication continues to emphasize that leaders can inhibit or enable change to occur proactively or reactively, dependent upon the manner and tone of the message.

Conversations are Much More Than Communication

Historically, communication has been seen as a part of the change process, a tool with which to communicate what is going to change, how it is going to change, and who it is going to impact, either positively or negatively (Johansson & Heide, 2008). When conversation has been used as a tool within the change process, it typically is used to prepare people, increase understanding of the change, and sustain change. It has also been used to gather feedback on the change and enable behavioural and attitudinal changes. What comprises both the communication of change as well as the change itself, is the myriad of conversations that change managers and recipients have with each other for and about the change. It is in these conversations that vision, possibility, and opportunity are created, people are engaged and mobilized, and problems or breakdowns are resolved.

That communication plays an important role in change is not a new idea. Numerous writers have stressed the importance of leadership communication (Kotter, 1996; Lewis & Seibold, 1996), even to the point of suggesting that change may be seen as a communication problem that can be resolved by having people understand the change and the role they play in its implementation. In this context, communication is understood as a tool for announcing, explaining, and making a case for change as part of preparing people for its positive and negative effects (Svennevig, 2008). As Ford and Ford (1995) have argued, and others have shown (Barrett, Thomas, & Hocevar, 1995), successful change is a product of using different types of conversations at different times. Leaders may not realize they have a conversational pattern or that altering it can have significant implications for change.

Researchers throughout the 1990s and early 2000s (Daft, 2005; Kotter, 1990; Lewis & Seibold, 1996; Raes, Glunk, Heijltjes, & Roe, 2007) outlined the importance of the leadership and communication connection as a process of persuasion by which one induces a group to pursue objectives held by the leader or shared by the leader and followers. This notion was further supported as one of the critical aspects of leadership—the ability to influence others—particularly through communication and conversations. However, today’s work environment is more diverse, more complex, and characterized by constant change. As a result, leaders face different and more difficult challenges when influencing followers.

Study Reveals Insights

In my study of transformational change leadership within a large energy company (Cowan Sahadath, 2010), leaders’ change conversations were categorized into five progressive types of leadership conversations: (1) strategically intentional; (2) catalyst for change; (3) mindful; (4) build shared commitment; and (5) guide the change. I found that transformational outcomes could be achieved by leaders through understanding audience perspectives and when leaders adjusted their conversations to enable more shared meaning, context, and understanding. This knowledge is critical to providing greater flexibility for leaders in order to respond faster to changes in their business.

Senior leaders (often referred to as the executive, senior leadership, or senior management) are generally the team of individuals at the highest level of organizational management, reporting to the CEO, who have the day-to-day responsibilities of managing and leading a corporation. In my work, I explored the verbal interactions between senior leaders (i.e., the participant group in my study) and their direct reports (the next level of management often referred to as middle managers).

This qualitative study investigated the variations in the way senior leaders experience their conversations during times of organizational change. It was an approach that uncovered how senior leaders experience, understand, and ascribe meaning to a specific situation or phenomenon. Based on key insights from my study, I will describe how leaders viewed their conversations and the direct contribution those conversations had on supporting changes and cultivating new opportunities for the organization.

Study Reveals Business Value

Leaders within an organization have various intentions and reasons to communicate: to provide information, to implement a change, to influence and motivate employees to perform better, to make decisions, to reward and recognize, to resolve conflict, and to coach and counsel. Knowing their conversations are instrumental in influencing the relationships and behaviors of their managers provides insight into:

  1. The role of conversation as a critical mechanism for planning communication implementations during change.
  2. The role conversation plays in affecting the outcome of an organizational change initiative as essential to providing greater flexibility for leaders in order to respond faster to changes in their business.
  3. The extent to which change conversations can help to decrease anxiety, increase motivation, and support the adoption of the behaviours or activities needed to achieve the desired outcome.

Additionally, my study provided an opportunity for senior leaders to:

  • Voice what they attribute to the value of their leadership conversations in moving the organization toward or away from its business goals.
  • Gain an appreciation of how their conversations profoundly change relationships.
  • Express and focus on what is important to them as leaders orchestrating change.

Implications for Practice

The practical implications of this research for future improvements in leadership conversations, organizational change, and change leadership are many. The following table summarizes the opportunities for leaders and change management professionals to reflect on and apply practical approaches to help assess individual business situations.

Leadership Conversations Leadership Practical Applications
Senior leaders perceived leadership conversations:

Five Categories

– Leadership conversations are strategically intentional

– Leadership conversations are catalysts for change

– Leadership conversations are mindful and purposeful

– Leadership conversations build shared commitment

– Leadership conversations guide the change

Building Leadership Capability:

Leaders/Change Leaders

– Leadership conversations construct a new organizational understanding of organizational change goals

– Advancement in development of leadership development and organizational change strategies

– Creating space for conversation

– Organizational change management professional advances

Types of Leadership Conversations To help leaders assess their conversational pattern and to leverage conversation as their primary method of communication during organizational change, I developed a series of conversation worksheets (excerpt from Cowan Sahadath, Creating Conversations for Change, unpublished) designed to support, facilitate, and reach a deeper level of understanding around the types of conversations held during organizational change. A sample of questions from the worksheets is included below with each insight from my research. These questions were created based on my research conclusions. Reviewing these questions may lead to new ideas about what you might consider doing differently to get value from the change conversations you lead.

Strategically Intentional Many researchers have suggested that change is produced in and through conversations and discourse (e.g., Barrett et al., 1995; Ford, 1999; Heracleous & Barrett, 2001; Marshak, 2002), and the most influential conversations may be those that occur at the level of everyday conversation (Barrett et al., 1995). These interactions are the primary mechanism available to managers for affecting change. Leaders in my study described their understanding of conversations as purposeful efforts, where talk is about determining how people think about and respond to organizational changes.

Leaders articulated that their conversations need to be carefully crafted, structured, and linked to business objectives to influence the change needed. Whether focusing on leadership conversations as well-planned and structured, or executed purposively to create understanding and influence behavior, this category focused on preparing people for change, and gathering feedback on the change in order to enable behavioural and attitudinal changes. The following questions will help planning those conversations:

  1. Have you considered whether you have all the information needed for this conversation?
  2. Do you understand what values are reflected in your own position?
  3. Do your managers share your understanding of the change?
  4. How do you communicate and have those change conversations with your managers?

Catalyst for Change Conversations about change create opportunities for vision and possibility, people engagement and mobilization, problem discovery, and resolution. The challenges facing leaders go beyond determining what needs to be done differently. Conner (1993) stated that effective leaders are capable of reframing the thinking of those whom they lead, enabling them to see that significant changes are not only essential, but also achievable. Leaders must also address how to execute these decisions in a manner that has the greatest possibility for success. If organizations change when people begin to talk and think differently (Barrett et al., 1995), then leaders need to focus on shaping discourse and providing opportunities for dialogue. If change is truly about discourse, then the most powerful intervention depends on the everyday conversation that leaders initiate.

Leadership conversations, as a communication vehicle, are significant in order to begin a process of creating broader opportunities for organizational understanding. The following questions may facilitate delivering conversations to create opportunities for a new mind-set, and act as a framework for thinking about and leading complex change:

  1. How have you changed the culture so that managers are not focused on status quo?
  2. Are you spending more or less time working together with your managers?
  3. How have you become more adaptive? Who do you involve? How do you involve your managers?

Mindful Awareness Using conversation as an effective communication method requires leaders to use their conversations purposely. This occurs when leaders openly discuss their awareness of what they are saying and the impact of their words. Further, conversations are purposeful and framed, and go where they need to go, based on the variety of audience perspectives and interests. To help leaders use conversation in this manner, the following questions are intended to expand one’s comfort zone, to create circumstances for developing mindfulness, and for acting mindfully:

  1. Has your relationship with managers changed over the past two years?
  2. Do you interact differently with your managers than you had two or three years ago?
  3. What do you do differently today as a leader that you didn’t do five or ten years ago?

Building Shared Commitment The results of this study suggest a clear shift towards skills that are tied to relationships and managing change, seeking to involve other people in the process, building important relationships, and working across boundaries to collaborate effectively. The development of these skills is critical to providing greater flexibility for leaders in order to respond faster to changes in their business. To create an environment that facilitates the new skill sets for leaders, an organization must change its systems and the way it operates to allow people to collaborate and work more interdependently. In this study, leaders approached their conversations authentically, and managed to build understandings around the common vision for the organization.

The following questions may provide an opportunity to build understanding and commitment to current goals, future possibilities, develop a genuine relationship with teams, and connect accountability through this dialogue:

  1. Are you emphasizing the need to change the culture and to listen to and engage with your people because you think engaged employees will be more productive?
  2. As a leader, how do you affect what people in all aspects of your business do, how do they get the message?
  3. Culture change is something that companies talk about but often don’t actually achieve. How are you thinking about changing the culture?

Guiding the Change My study revealed that leadership conversations guide an organization in achieving something significantly or fundamentally different from what they have done before. When leaders share the values and vision with their teams, and when everyone collectively understands the key drivers and the strategies that are being employed to address them, everyone can be collectively committed to the major strategic efforts of the organization. In this context, communication is understood as a tool for announcing, explaining, and making a case for change as part of preparing people for its positive and negative effects. The study found that leaders do realize they have a conversational pattern and that altering it can have significant implications for change. Questions to consider:

  1. What are some of the strategies you use to discuss business priorities and values?
  2. In what ways do your goals reflect the business goals?
  3. What have you done over the past year to keep your managers/employees informed about how the business is doing?

Building Leadership Capability

Researchers and practitioners have come to understand leaders, leadership, and leadership development in many ways. The implication that future leadership development can provide a more informed understanding of leadership as a practice, involves new skills in collaboration, teamwork, and innovation required to achieving business objectives and results.

I indicated previously that the results of this study suggest a clear shift toward skills that are tied to relationships and managing change, seeking to involve other people in the process, building important relationships, and working across boundaries to collaborate effectively. Skill development in this area is critical to providing greater flexibility for leaders in order to respond faster to changes in their industries. To create an environment that supports the development of new skill sets for leaders, an organization must change its systems and the way it operates to allow people to collaborate and work more interdependently.

Opportunities for leadership development may involve:

  • Challenging assignments that take leaders out of their technical expertise and into a business that involves a broader range of people across the organization.
  • Connecting less experienced leaders with those who already practice participatory management and provide aspiring leaders experiences to actively learn on a day-to-day basis.

Creating Space for Conversations

The results of my research suggest that there may be more conducive approaches to helping to develop organizational opportunities that enable moving from conversation to conversation, and knowing when to create opportunities for spaces for conversations. To clarify, creating space occurs when a leader supports an environment that allows for comfortable, profound conversations, as a way of building opportunities for others. A responsibility for today’s leaders is to create space for their managers, a space where distinct businesses and people in the organization come together and have meaningful conversation; a space in which people can generate new and different ideas. Questions leaders might ask to explore the overall change that is occurring in the organization:

  1. Are the types of conversations you have with your managers during times of organizational change building a common understanding of the facts about the change?
  2. What role does your communication efforts play in engaging your managers in key change initiatives?
  3. In leading an organization through change, what questions do you think are important to ask?

Change for Change Management Professionals

The main contribution of my research for practitioner purposes is in highlighting the need to transform the way change management professionals approach communication efforts for senior leaders. There are new avenues to explore for leadership development and for effective organizational change management. It seems that leaders are aware that conversations are a way of intervening strategically. Findings indicate that there was unexpected discovery among my participants that suggests opportunities for executive leadership development (i.e., increasing the ways that a leader employs leadership conversations) and understanding of the multiple ways that effective leaders make meaning of leadership conversations. To be able to adopt the best change implementation strategy, leaders and change agents need to understand the complexity of forces involved when a large-scale change is implemented and know the multiple ways leaders make meaning of leadership conversations to have the greatest impact.

The more organizational change management professionals understand about the influence of leadership conversations on an organization and its leadership, the more they can contribute to the organization’s success.

Changing the Conversation

A deeper and broader understanding of how senior leaders experience and interpret their leadership conversations is a significant contribution to understanding the complex organizational change in the business world today and plays a significant role for organizational leadership. On a daily basis, organizations are challenged to improve their business performance, and take on new and exciting projects, often as a result of a change in strategy or to increase business effectiveness. Change is increasingly becoming an important part of what leaders do, and communication and conversations are essential to both leadership and organizational change success.

 

About the Author


kathy-cowan-sahadath

Kathy Cowan Sahadath  is a Program Manager at Hydro One Networks Inc. in Toronto, Ontario Canada. Her current position involves supporting the increasing number of strategic organizational change transformations in the company. She specifically addresses the people side of change at all levels of the company, working in concert with business leaders, project leaders, and with change teams. Their aim is to improve the company’s overall organizational capacity for managing change, by developing and mentoring change leaders from within the business and supporting them as they take on change-related assignments.

Kathy’s professional education includes an undergraduate degree from the University of Waterloo in Psychology, an MBA in Project Management from Athabasca University, a Masters of Arts degree in Human and Organizational Development from Fielding Graduate University, and a PhD in Human and Organizational Systems specializing in the area of organizational change and leadership also from Fielding Graduate University, in Santa Barbara, California.

In addition to Kathy’s corporate responsibilities, she is involved as a volunteer and board member with the Project Management Institute, Project Research Institute, Toronto Forum on Organizational Change, The International Council on Organizational Change, the Academy of Management, and the Association of Change Management Professionals.

References

Appelbaum, Steven H., Jonathon Berke, Joe Taylor, and Jose A. Vazquez. “The Role of Leadership During Large Scale Organizational Transitions: Lessons from Six Empirical Studies.” The Journal of American Academy of Business 13, no. 1 (2008): 16-24.

Barrett, Frank J., Gail F. Thomas, and Susan P. Hocevar. “The Central Role of Discourse in Large-Scale Change: A Social Construction Perspective.” Journal of Applied Behavioral Science 31, no. 3 (1995): 352-372.

Cinite, Inta, Linda E. Duxbury, and Chris Higgins. “Measurement of Perceived Organizational Readiness for Change in the Public Sector.” British Journal of Management 20, no. 2 (2009): 265-277.

Conner, Daryl R. Managing at the Speed of Change: How Resilient Managers Succeed and Prosper Where Others Fail. New York: Villard Books, 1993.

Cowan Sahadath, Kathy. “Leading Change One Conversation at a Time: A Phenomenographic Study of Senior Leadership Conversations.” PhD diss., Fielding Graduate University, 2010.

Cowan Sahadath, Kathy L.”Creating Conversations for Change.” Unpublished.

Daft, Richard L. The Leadership Experience. 3rd ed. Toronto: Thomson South-Western, 2005.

Ford, Jeffrey D. “Organizational change as shifting conversations.” Journal of Organizational Change Management 12, no. 6, (1999): 1-39.

Ford, Jeffrey D., and Laurie W. Ford. “The Role of Conversations in Producing Intentional Change in Organizations.” Academy of Management Review 20, no. 3 (1995): 541-570.

Ford, Jeffrey D., and Laurie W. Ford. “Conversational Profiles: A Tool for Altering the Conversational Patterns of Change Managers.” The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science 44, no. 4 (2008): 445-467.

Heracleous, Loizos, and Michael Barrett. “Organizational Change as Discourse: Communicative Actions and Deep Structures in the Context of Information Technology Implementation.” Academy of Management Journal 44, no. 4 (2001): 755-778.

Johansson, Catrin, and Mats Heide. “Speaking of change: three communication approaches in studies of organizational change.” Corporate Communications: An International Journal 13, no.3 (2008): 288-305.

Kotter, John P. A Force for Change: How Leadership Differs from Management. New York: Free Press, 1990.

Kotter, John P. Leading Change. Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1996.

Lewis, Laurie K., and David R. Seibold. “Communication during intraorganizational innovation adoption: Predicting users’ behavioral coping responses to innovations in organizations.” Communication Monographs 63, no. 2 (1996):131-157.

Marshak, Robert J. “Changing the language of change: how new contexts and concepts are challenging the ways we think and talk about organizational change.” Strategic Change 11, no. 5 (2002): 279-286.

Mengis, Jeanne, and Martin J. Eppler. “Understanding and Managing Conversations from a Knowledge Perspective: An Analysis of the Roles and Rules of Face-to-Face Conversations in Organizations.” Organization Studies 29, no.10 (2008): 1287-1313.

O’Neill, Alan, and Muayyad Jabri. “Legitimation and group conversational practices: implications for managing change.” Leadership & Organization Development Journal 28, no. 6 (2007): 571-588.

Pearce, W. Barnett. “Toward a New Repertoire of Communication Skills for Leaders and Managers.” The Quality Management Forum 34, no. 4 (2008): 4-7.

Raes, Anneloes M. L., Ursula Glunk, Marielle G. Heijltjes, and Robert A. Roe. “Top Management Team and Middle Managers: Making Sense of Leadership.” Small Group Research 38, no. 3 (2007): 360-386.

Scott, Susan. Fierce Conversations: Achieving Success at Work & in Life, One Conversation at a time. New York: Berkley Publishing Group, 2004.

Svennevig, Jan. “Exploring Leadership Conversations.” Management Communication Quarterly 21, no. 4 (2008): 529-536.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply. Learn more about the collection, use and disclosure of personal information at Queen’s University.