Case Studies in Change Leadership
The following post is adapted from my personal academic coursework.
Case Studies in Change Leadership
At its essence, leadership is a change-focused enterprise. Leaders influence others to change. While this influence takes place at various levels and through diverse means, change is always the common denominator. Change is the distinguishing feature of leadership. History contains accounts of strong leaders, both good and bad, and weak leaders. The chronicles of the exploits of these leaders fill archives and libraries—those who have made changes that drastically improved the human condition, those who caused others to suffer, and those who history remembers only for the opportunities they squandered. These types of leaders existed throughout human history, from ancient times through the present day. For instance, World War II had good leaders like Eisenhower and Nimitz, bad leaders like Hitler and Mussolini, and weak leaders like Neville Chamberlain. The Bible tells numerous stories of good leaders like Joseph, bad leaders like Nebuchadnezzer, and weak leaders like Adam. Merida also recounted stories of all these leadership types, including the weak leadership of King Ahab, the bad leadership of Queen Jezebel, and the good leadership of King Josiah.
If the adage is true that history repeats itself, then it is vital for modern leaders to learn from the legacies of those who have preceded them. They must be able to identify those characteristics that distinguish good leaders from bad ones and strong leaders from weak ones. Aspiring leaders must know how to replicate good leadership traits and avoid evil ones. Because leaders are constantly effecting transformation, they operate within a moral imperative of making sure they are making the right changes. These changes should maximize the good they achieve while minimizing any negative impacts. This paper serves the goal of learning from others’ leadership through the identification of current best practices in leading organizational change and studying the examples of other organizational leaders from various contexts.
Experts have written countless volumes on the best practices of leadership. Ecclesiastes 12:12 (NKJV) admonishes readers that “Of making many books there is no end, and much study is wearisome to the flesh.” While it is therefore impossible to exhaustively catalogue the best practices of organizational change leadership, the following four main tactics will serve all leaders well: implement necessary changes, begin with the end in mind, rally the troops, and anchor the changes.
Implement Necessary Changes
Kotter stated that establishing a sense of urgency was the first step in achieving significant organizational change. He added that “establishing a sense of urgency is crucial to gaining needed cooperation.” Unfortunately, many leaders struggle to generate the urgency their initiatives require because they either implement changes that are not necessary or fail to implement those changes that are. Thus, a good starting point for any leader is to determine which changes are necessary. This is important because it is nearly impossible to establish a sense of urgency around an unnecessary change.
While applying Kotter’s eight steps to manage change in the United Kingdom’s Integrated Offender Management program, King et al. found that “not all partners had ‘bought into’ the philosophy and objectives of the schemes” because the initiatives did not seem necessary to multiple different agencies in the criminal justice community. This belief highlights how important it is for leaders to choose to implement necessary changes. Kotter stated that “People will find a thousand ingenious ways to withhold cooperation from a process they think is unnecessary or wrongheaded.
Graamans et al. presented another example of this withheld cooperation in their study of a failed attempt to change the brand of suture in a Dutch hospital. They found that cardiothoracic surgeons “adamantly refused to work with the suture…, …stockpil[ed] their own supplies of surgical suture…, …[and threatened to hold] managers accountable for patient deaths that could arise from use of the new suture.” Why were the surgeons so opposed to new suture? They believed that it presented a danger to patient health outcomes. In other words, what was a dollars and cents issue to the hospital management was a life and death issue to the surgeons. The hospital management tried to make this unnecessary change and it ultimately failed. Leaders must make those changes which are necessary and avoid making those which are not.
Begin with the End in Mind
Covey famously articulated this next best practice for change leaders as the second of his seven steps, “Begin with the end in mind.” Covey further explained, “To begin with the end in mind means to start with a clear understanding of your destination. It means to know where you’re going… …so that the steps you take are always in the right direction.” Covey suggested that leaders ask themselves, “What are the things I want to accomplish?” Kotter echoed this sentiment in the third stage of his eight-step process, “Develop a vision and strategy.” Essentially, leaders must know where they are leading the organization. They must have a clear vision of the desired outcome and know the paths that will lead to it. Watts explained, “Defining specific outcomes is an effective way to create actionable goals that… …focus on those whom the initiative is intended to support.” Watts added that “defining outcomes can assist in… …solidifying group buy-in to help move the project forward.” Watts understood the importance of having a clearly defined destination. Effective leaders must begin with the end in mind.
Rally the Troops
Another best practice of change leaders is to get people united around the leader’s vision for the organization. Two of Kotter’s steps—creating the guiding coalition and communicating the change vision—are in keeping with this best practice. Grenny et al. suggested that those who want to lead others should “engage all six sources of influence.” These sources of influence include personal motivation, personal ability, social motivation, social ability, structural motivation, and structural ability. While there are many ways which leaders may employ to draw people to their causes, most of them involve some form of communication. In Habakkuk 2:2 (NKJV), God says to “Write the vision and make it plain on tablets, that he may run who reads it.” Clearly articulating the change vision is critical to the leader’s success.
Watts stated that “If the team knows where they are headed, all the members can steer in the same direction.” Similarly, Muthusamy made the following recommendation: “Managers and leaders should employ collaborative and consensus-building socio-linguistic jargons… [because] …sharing positive communication is central to the creation, sustenance and achieving organizational transformation. Thus, the process of creating, acquiring, articulating, sharing inspiration and knowledge through positive maxims and metaphors is a core organizational capability for modern management. If managers and leaders enact the words they articulate, organizations can realize the mission and goals that seem impossible.” Hemme et al. also emphasized the importance of language in communicating the vision: “We argue for more deliberately crafted change messages that emphasize some aspects over others under consideration of change recipients’ specific change concerns and context. Whereas some readiness beliefs need to be addressed clearly and deliberately early on, others can be affected more easily at later points during the change initiative. Specifically, change recipients need to be convinced that the proposed changes are in fact suitable to engender significant organizational benefits – otherwise all other efforts to affect other change-related attitudes appear to be moot.”
Anchor the Change
A final best practice is for leaders to anchor the change. Kotter recommended that leaders “anchor new approaches in the culture.” Atkins et al. related the story of a failed change effort which relied too heavily upon a single person and dissolved upon that individual’s retirement: “The most significant barrier [to continuing the change effort]… …was the retirement of and failure to replace the director of sustainability. This… …affected virtually all aspects of empowerment through authority. The long-established director position was eliminated… It had created a point person…, but after the person who had held the job retired, support from the Academic Affairs Office declined in awareness, structural support, and resources. With no one assigned to report to the university president about sustainability or lead university-wide efforts, the academic branch… …met with significant setbacks that jeopardized its upward trajectory in gaining participation of both faculty and students on its campuses. The vital role… …was placed at risk.”
Wei and Clegg also addressed anchoring approaches in the culture through their research on the dominance of organizational cultures during acquisition. They found that several trends related to the acquiring company’s culture, the target company’s culture, the power differential between these organizations, and how those impacted the post-acquisition culture of the organization. They found that organizations in the acquisition process pass through three phases—resistance, conformity, and integration. These phases also may be present in other change efforts. Finally, Jeong and Shin found that “when high-performance work practices are paired with organizational change, organizations have a much better chance of survival and prosperity.”
The following case studies offer valuable insights into the organizational change process.
Li discussed his own experiences building a talent culture at HKBN, a leading Hong Kong news agency.
The Change Process
Li developed a blended approach to organizational change drawing from Kotter’s eight-step model and Yu’s 3H (heart-head-hand) model.. Li spread his blended approach across three super-steps for change: creating the climate for change, engaging and enabling the organization, and implementing and sustaining for change, and explained how he implemented these super-steps at HKBN.
In creating the climate for change, Li created urgency, formed a coalition, and created a vision; in engaging and enabling the organization, he communicated the vision, empowered action, and created the quick win; and in implementing and sustaining for change, he built on the change and made it stick.
Li was successful in creating the talent culture he envisioned. He attributed his success in part to how he balanced the 3H model with Kotter’s eight steps.
Graamans et al. explained how one Dutch hospital’s effort to reduce expenses by purchasing a different brand of suture backfired.
The Change Process
Although the hospital management thought this was a “relatively small-scale change initiative,” they still utilized some change-management principles. These included building a guiding coalition, consulting department heads, and communicating the change to the surgeons. In fact, this change was believed to be so simple that it would have been one of the guiding coalition’s early wins as they had more cost-cutting measures planned for the future. One manager even stated it, “This appeared to us as an easy win.”
Unfortunately, appearances are sometimes misleading, and this was not an easy win. The surgeons refused to use the new suture, citing patient safety, and the management abandoned the mew suture. One reason for this outcome is that the management team tried to make a change that was not necessary. Another reason the initiative failed is because the hospital management team did not effectively rally the troops.
Integrated Offender Management
King et al. examined the limited success of the United Kingdom’s Integrated Offender Management system, a multi-agency approach to criminal justice and rehabilitation. This program coordinated the efforts of police officers, probation officers, drug addiction counselors, and other stakeholders within the system.
The Change Process
After seeing the system fail to maximize its potential, King et al. retroactively evaluated the implementation of the system using Kotter’s eight-step change model to identify its shortcomings. They found significant issues at several stages. While the police and probation officers saw the urgent need for change, some of the supporting agencies did not and this hindered the entire process. The system had no guiding coalition and no strategic plan to implement its vision. King et al. also found issues with communicating the vision to adjacent law enforcement and probation units and empowering others to act.
Kotter stated that “successful change of any magnitude goes through all eight stages.” King et al. found that the lack of a strategic plan led to later difficulty creating short-term wins, consolidating gains and producing more change, and institutionalizing the new approaches.
King et al. made numerous recommendations for improvement to the system implementation at every stage of Kotter’s process. They acknowledged the difficulty of public-sector inter-agency cooperation, but stated that “the possible tensions between occupational cultures could be mitigated through some of the early phases of Kotter’s model.”
Vito addressed a failed case of implementing self-directed teams at a large mental health and development services agency.
The Change Process
Two new, inexperienced directors at this agency implemented a rapid-fire change to the organization’s vision, mission, values, strategic direction and structure. The changes all happened in a matter of months with poor preparation, minimal communication, and inadequate support systems.
For many reasons, this change initiative ultimately failed. While the reasons for the failure are varied, they have much more to do with the change process than the change’s intended outcome. Every organization has a limit to the amount of change it may withstand before it reaches critical mass. This study demonstrates precisely why managing change is so vitally important to an organization’s health.
Watts described his experience establishing the Department of Knowledge Production at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas.
The Change Process
Watts began with what he knew from experience. As he considered his plans, which consisted of “practical and cutting-edge technologies, furniture ideas, and job descriptions that were applicable to the UNLV campus context.” Watts realized that he was still missing some necessary information: “However, understanding and communicating how learners and researchers would make use of the new services and spaces did not easily unfold. A list of topics and technologies and a sheaf of carpet samples will not help a librarian or project team identify the behaviors that indicate learning or the evidence to demonstrate that a space or service meets an instructional or research need. Further exploration was required. The objectives for the initiative had to be further clarified.” In addition to Watts (2019) explaining how he developed a better plan, he also provided guidance for how to handle what he termed “side-eye” and fear when leading organizational change. Watts succeeded in launching the department.
Case studies contain a wealth of information for aspiring leaders. The case studies in this paper highlighted four best practices—implementing necessary changes, beginning with the end in mind, rallying the team, and anchoring the changes in the organization’s culture. Additionally, the case studies tell the stories of leadership successes, like those of Li and Watts; of leadership failures, such as Graamans et al. and Vito; and of reflective leaders, like King et al. Their experiences help develop the next generation of organizational change leaders.
Akins, E. E., Giddens, E., Glassmeyer, D., Gruss, A., Kalamas Hedden, M., Slinger-Friedman, V., & Weand, M. (2019). Sustainability education and organizational change: A critical case study of barriers and change drivers at a higher education institution. Sustainability, 11(2), 501-517. https://doi.org/10.3390/su11020501
Covey, S. R. (1989). The seven habits of highly effective people: Restoring the character ethic. Simon & Schuster.
Graamans, E., Aij, K., Vonk, A., & Ten Have, W. (2020). Case study: Examining failure in change management. Journal of Organizational Change Management, 33(2), 319-330. https://doi.org/10.1108/JOCM-06-2019-0204
Grenny, J., Patterson, L., Maxfield, D., McMillian, R., & Switzler, A. (2013). Influencer: The new science of leading change. McGraw-Hill Education.
Hemme, F., Bowers, M. T., & Todd, J. S. (2018). Change readiness as fluid trajectories: A longitudinal multiple-case study. Journal of Organizational Change Management, 31(5), 1153-1175. https://doi.org/10.1108/JOCM-07-2017-0824
Jeong, I. & Shin, S. J. (2019). High-performance work practices and organizational creativity during organizational change: A collective learning perspective. Journal of Management, 45(3), 909-925. https://doi.org/10.1177/0149206316685156
King, S., Hopkins, M., & Cornish, N. (2018). Can models of organizational change help to understand ‘success’ and ‘failure’ in community sentences? Appling Kotter’s model of organizational change to an integrated offender management case study. Criminology & Criminal Justice, 18(3), 273-290. https://doi.org/10.1177/1748895817721274
Kotter, J. P. (2012). Leading change. Harvard Business Review Press.
Li, E. (2018). A case study of the critical success factors for organizational change of a public listed corporation. Public Administration and Policy, 21(2), 152-165. https://doi.org/10.1109/PAP-10-2018-010
Muthusamy, S. K. (2019). Power of positive words: Communication, cognition, and organizational transformation. Journal of Organizational Change Management, 32(1), 103-122. https://doi.org/10.1108/JOCM-05-2018-0140
Merida, T. (2015). Christ-centered exposition commentary: Exalting Jesus in 1 & 2 Kings. B & H Publishing Group.
The Holy Bible, New King James Version (1982). Thomas Nelson, Inc.
Vito, R. (2019). Self-directed teams as an organizational change strategy to empower staff: A teaching/learning case study. Human Service Organizations, Management, Leadership & Governance, 43(2), 146-151. https://doi.org/10.1080/23303131.2019.1614852
Watts, J. (2019). Navigating the new: A case study on leading organizational change. Portal: Libraries and the Academy, 19(2), 223-232. https://doi.org/10.1353/pla.2019.0013
Wei, T. & Clegg, J. (2018). Effect of organizational identity change on integration approaches in acquisitions: Role of organizational dominance. British Journal of Management, 29(2), 337-355. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-8551.12226