Four essentials of leading transformation



A tough business climate, political deadlock, and financial crisis are forces shaping the current decade. Business people, politicians, and finance leaders are looking back over their shoulders and pointing fingers about what went wrong. The only area of widespread agreement is that the current predicaments are unacceptable and the status quo is unsustainable. This paper introduces new strategies any type of organization can use to break from the status quo when stagnation or powerful forces demand new and sometimes radical approaches to realize opportunities or tackle challenges. This paper explores how these strategies can be leveraged by leaders of change initiatives. It draws upon recent trends and ideas from marketing, social activism, team dynamics and innovation which are influencing our society today and can be leveraged by organizations to drive meaningful change.


Organizations and business are hungry to transform. The slow road out of the great recession provides little incentive to look to the past as examples of future success. We look around us and see that costs are higher, resources are scarcer, and the relentless drive for efficiency is more urgent than ever. We also see that audiences and customers are demanding both more accountability from the organizations they interact with just as they are asking for a greater voice in the decisions about forces that will influence them.

I lead big projects and help organizations determine and execute their strategies. Essentially, I help create conditions that are ripe for change. A thought-out approach, the right talent, and a well-articulated plan are basic steps that still matter. However, my clients often ask for my help to break from the status quo. They want leaders who create new patterns of behavior not found within their current organizations. They want to address old and mounting problems in truly new ways. And they realize that many of the trusted management tools that succeeded in the past are not enough.

Recently, I’ve been helping my clients intentionally break from past ways of doing things. Like pursuing new technology for a retailer that goes beyond re-automating what incumbent systems were doing, to alter the experience customers have when interacting with the company. I’m seeing an airline re-engineer business processes to not only make it run leaner, but also to make whole portions of the operations “go away” so that it can spend precious attention on improving performance instead. The firm I work for has been helping non-profit organizations restructure the roles and responsibilities of top tiers of leadership. These organizations can’t afford to play musical chairs inside their organizational chart; instead they must reorganize to enable new accountability and effectiveness so they continue to make an impact for the populations they serve.

To tackle the types of changes just mentioned, astute leaders are developing new methods to harness the brainpower, creativity and passions that are needed so that the status quo can be left behind. Connecting with “why,” creating a movement, building socially aware teams and accelerated innovation by engaging the crowd are not my ideas. For the purposes of this paper I rely on the work of columnists, writers, and thought leaders to help me define what they mean and describe how these elements are put into action. But in my work as a consultant and project leader, these ideas are materializing in my daily work and expanding how I approach transformation.

Connect with Why

In every organization, people can usually tell you what they are working on. “We’re implementing an electronic medical records system,” or “We’re conducting a LEAN workshop to decrease accounts payable.” And for a project manager, what is being worked on defines the big milestones and becomes the focus for the activities that are tracked.

Fewer people can tell you how something is done. Determining “how” takes more time. Figuring out how to do something often requires specific expertise. Actual changing the doctor’s office from using paper charts in long colored folders to having physicians and nurses carrying a tablet and updating your medical history takes know-how. Computer systems need to be plugged-in and applications sewn together, a way to convert all the existing charts to electronic records, doctors trained on new devices, etc.

The discipline of project management gives us the tools to track the “what” and the “how.” Progress toward milestones, such as deploying Oracle Financials or piloting the first electronic medical records tablet, are clear deliverables we can show in a plan. But managing to a plan may not be enough to break from the status quo. Leaders must be able to connect the everyday work to “why” it matters. For instance, does the work improve patient care? Does the work contribute in some way to customers having a better experience? The “why” behind the work often gets lost in the everyday coding of 10,000 charts or getting the accounts payable database to talk to the data warehouse.

In his conversation at TED and in his book Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action, Simon Sinek (2011) claims that the element that separates leaders from managers and exceptional organizations from average ones is that they know why they exist. They can explain it. It infuses everything they do.

Golden Circle (Adapted from Sinek, 2011)

Exhibit 1 – Golden Circle
(Adapted from Sinek, 2011)

People are drawn to the products and services that come from organizations that know why they exist. We are wired in our brains to perform a task for reward or punishment, but we are motivated to sustain action, and engage others in what we are doing when we feel connected to the purpose that others have. Leading change means being able to state why the project exists. It’s non-negotiable. It does not trump being able to spell out the “how” or setting clear sights on the “what.” But without connecting the transformational project to why the effort exists in the first place, we risk doing work that only leads us closer to where we started from.

Create a Movement

An organization uses structure and resources and power to make things happen. Organizations hire people, issue policies, buy things, erect buildings, earn market share and get things done. Your company is probably an organization.

A movement has an emotional heart. A movement might use an organization, but it can replace systems and people if they disappear. Movements are more likely to cause widespread change, and they require leaders, not managers. The Internet, it turns out, is a movement, and every time someone tries to own it, they fail (Seth Godin, 2011, para. 2).

Projects can exist as the sum of their tasks. The tasks need resources that the project can ask the organization it serves to provide. Most projects fall into this category. And most projects need an organizer so the tasks get completed by the resources that are assigned. Projects function within the organization to get things done.

But what if the organization needs to take a complete new shape? Sometimes the challenge is bigger than the capabilities and processes the current organization possesses. When a business says, “but we’re not set up to do that” it might be time for something more than a traditional project.

Movements occur because there’s a clear catalyst sparking them into being. Movements can be slow to form. The US Surgeon General began exclaiming the dangers of smoking in the 1970s, but it took over 25 years for many American cities to ban cigarette smoking from public places. Movements can also quickly sweep parts of the globe unexpectedly. The Arab Spring did not exist a year ago, today it has toppled two governments and is railing against more.

Movements have a momentum of their own. While elements of a movement may be planned, their arc: from inception, to tipping point, to revolution, and to their demise cannot be plotted-out with accuracy beforehand. Could the medical community in the late 1960s have imagined tackling the public health problem of smoking in the US would take 40+ years? Inversely, did activists using Facebook and Twitter last year think they’d bring all walks of life out onto the streets in Tunisia and Egypt and forever change the role the people play in how they are governed? While movements may have strategies, how they actually achieve their goals is often unpredictable. But in the end, all successful movements change the status quo.

Successful movements also engage participants at full throttle, without the benefit of a job description defined at the outset. When Geoffrey Canada obtained his PhD in education from Harvard, he did not know that to create excellence in education in some of America’s poorest neighborhoods, he’d start by working outside the mainstream public education system and need to intimately follow the academic progress of youth concentrated in a 24-block area of Harlem (Tough, 2008).

Departing from the status quo, like education reform, relies upon a groundswell. If top down approaches have failed, the front lines need to rise up to create for themselves the conditions that will foster change. Many of today’s organizations and institutions face vexing problems that boardrooms and state houses have failed to remedy. Problems such as crushing debt, crumbling infrastructure and less opportunity won’t go away with business-as-usual. Harnessing the passions of the masses and forging that passion into the will for irrevocable change is an essential skill for leaders in our era.

It starts with one person, a change agent, who is willing to stand out and face what may initially be a hostile or ambivalent audience. “But it’s the first person willing to follow the change agent that transforms what was just the cause of a loner into a true movement” (Sivers, 2010). Movements occur in public, they need a critical mass, and the members within the movement must feel like equals with one another. The person who stands out first and the early followers, it is they who bear the greatest risk. Those who join the initial followers validate the cause until there’s a tipping point and then the masses join in, not wanting to be left behind.

Project managers bring the discipline of managing “how.” We can help guide and steer the uprisings demanding change. We can help popularize causes, with communication strategies that give them the light of day needed to turn them into movements. Facebook, brown bag lunch discussions, and meet-ups are all simple means of giving those willing to stand out a voice, and those willing to join-in a means of contributing to the cause. As the movement grows in size, the planning and organizing talents of a project manager comes into play. When results mean changing the status quo, we help the activists and movement organizers. So the symbolic protest and boycott can be staged. Or help mobilize the masses for the act of civil disobedience. Or plan the hour of the march (hopefully peacefully) toward the palace doors.

Build Socially Aware Teams

Organizational life is often engineered to drive efficiency and consistency through repetition. We often defer to reason and science to improve process so that quality goods and services are delivered, wealth is created and lives are improved. In times when materials and resources are abundant and other external forces like market demand is in our favor, the only hurtle is how to execute. For this, deductive, top town reasoning does the job nicely. But in times of uncertainly, when past performance is not an indicator of future success, we need teams that exhibit what author and New York Times columnist David Brooks (2011) calls “metis,” the ability to see patterns in the world and derive a gist from complex situations. This skill goes beyond I.Q. and subject expertise. It is a social awareness, an attunement, that is curious about the motivation and needs of others and it complements practical know-how and deductive reasoning.

Socially aware teams leverage multidisciplinary thinking. They create opportunities for individuals to step out beyond their own expertise and consider how they would act if handed a set of circumstances different from their own. Debate and pressure testing occurs not simply from different parties advocating their own positions, but from testing new hypotheses of what the future might bring. Socially aware teams are adept at acknowledging emotion and passion when it surfaces among members of the group. It’s a must to sustain the degree of honesty needed to chart new possibility and tackle risky and groundbreaking thinking. Socially aware teams are not adverse to organizational hierarchy. They can comprise people of different levels of responsibility in the organization. But they won’t rely on the hierarchy for their inner workings. A socially aware team will course correct if one person’s viewpoints suffocate debate.

Project managers are facilitators. We can facilitate how people participate in the work, often mixing and matching different people based upon their roles and expertise. As project managers driving transformational change, we can develop social awareness among teams. And this can be accomplished amongst almost any group. As a convener of a socially aware team, we can set norms of behavior that invite “equipoise, the ability to [objectively] monitor the movements of one’s own mind and correct for biases and shortcomings” (Brooks, 2011, March 7) We can ask our teams to be clear about the underlying interest and motives that shape their beliefs. And we can contrasts beliefs that rose from past experience vs. the outcomes that are required for people and organizations to thrive in the future.

Accelerate Innovation by Engaging the Crowd

“We are a social species; we spark off each other…” Chris Anderson (2010).

The Internet age has profoundly altered innovation by enabling far-flung audiences to rapidly improve upon ideas, which in turn draws even larger audiences which then drives more cycles of innovation and improvement. In his seminal conversation at TED, Anderson (2010) coined the term “crowd accelerated innovation” to describe the phenomena of evolving ideas which are open and accessible to social communication via the Internet.

Consider the Linux operating system. While initially begun by a few software developers, because the source code was accessible for anyone to see and improve upon, today variants of Linux power everything from embedded systems to the world’s fastest super computer. Another example is TripAdvisor, the world’s largest user-generated site for online travel tips and reviews. TripAdvisor has forever altered the travel industry. Since anyone can post an online review, it relinquishes the travel author’s exclusive control over a hotel or tour operator’s reputation to the consumer, reducing the influence and degree of filter guidebooks and travel writers have. More recently, JoVE is the first scientific journal of its kind. Instead of being limited by the publishing and jury of traditional medical journals, JoVE (Journal of Visualized Experiments) publishes videos online of experimental procedures and protocols in the biological and life sciences. Although JoVE has an editorial board, anyone can publish videos of research and experiments, enabling new degrees of access medical research.

Each of us has the capacity to innovate. Where there’s a crowd, there are more potential innovators. The Internet, social media, and the explosion in low-cost digital video can reach more mavericks, trend-spotters and idea-spreaders than ever before. And when an idea piques the desire of the crowd, innovation occurs that much more rapidly.

The tools to engage the crowd are virtually free. But access to new audiences demands degrees of transparency and openness that were unheard of just a few years ago. Information and ideas must be shared to find their audience. In this viral medium, originality matters less than adoption. To spawn and evolve, ideas must be compelling and have resonance so they spark passions among the crowd they engage. Then the innovation cycles begin.

Traditional change management approaches call for communication plans and stakeholder engagement strategies. Project managers helping organizations break from the status quo can augment conventional means by using the tools of social networking both inside and outside the corporate firewall. We can allow far-flung offices to comment on early software UI prototypes and then fold that feedback into next iterations and share the results. We can engage followers through blogs and create conversations about best industry practices and how they can be applied inside our own organizations. We can create strategies that allow ideas to evolve by pulsating through the organizations they serve, instead of relying on the “eureka moment” of a rarefied few.


To replace the status quo, we must call upon methods and approaches that break past patterns. The conventional and conscientious tools familiar to project managers are not irrelevant when radical innovation or even revolution is afoot. But the approaches we take to problem solving need to be influenced by deep forces. Connecting with “why,” creating a movement, building socially aware teams and accelerating innovation by engaging the crowd will not be the only essentials needed to break organizations from the status quo. But these four are trends and ideas that are driving new possibility in our tumultuous times. To not include them in our work as change agents and leaders might stall our efforts in the past.

Anderson, Chris. (2010). How web video powers global innovation. TED Ideas Worth Spreading. Retrieved on June 2011, from

Brooks, David. (2011). The social animal: The hidden sources of love, character, and achievement. New York: Random House.

Brooks, David. (2011, March 7). The new humanism. The New York Times.

Godin, Seth. (2011, June 13). Organization vs. movement vs. philosophy.

Henley, Kari. (February 27, 2011). How to start a movement in 3 minutes. The Huffington Post. Retrieved from Retrieved on June 2011, from

Sinek, Simon. (2009). Start with why: How great leaders inspire everyone to take action. New York: Penguin Group

Sinek, Simon. (2009). How great leaders inspire action. TED Ideas Worth Spreading. Retrieved on June 2011, from

Sivers, Derek. (2010). How to start a movement. TED Ideas Worth Spreading. Retrieved on June 2011, from

Tough, Paul. (2008). What every it takes: Geoffrey Canada’s quest to change Harlem and America. New York: Houghton – Mifflin.

© 2011, Seth Rosenbloom
Originally published as a part of 2011 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Dallas, TX



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