Even though the study of transformational change in organizations has become a popular research topic in the fields of management and leadership studies, it appears that only one in three change initiatives has been deemed successful, according to studies and publications by McKinsey & Company.
Social scientists, psychologists and organizational developers have amassed thousands of volumes about change management and the role of leadership in change initiatives; however, these resources have not altered the success ratio in transformational change since statistics started to appear in the 1990s.
In a 2007 article, McKinsey characterize large organizational transformation as having “startlingly high ambitions, the integration of different types of change, and a prolonged effort often lasting many months , in some cases, even years.” In another article published two years later, the consulting firm noted that “despite prolific output, the field of change management hasn’t led to more successful change programs.”
John Kotter and other change luminaries have provided complete methods for managing large change, often claiming that their method would at least raise the probability of success.
In their 2009 McKinsey article The Irrational Side of Change Management, writers Carolyn Aiken and Scott Keller discussed four basic conditions for large transformation to take place in an organization:
- A compelling story,
- Role modeling,
- Reinforcing mechanisms, and
- Capability building.
Aiken and Keller’s article analyzes the success and failures of transformational initiatives by attempting to dispel traditional conceptualizations about these four conditions.
Bill Torbert and his associates approached the subject of organizational transformation purely from the leadership standpoint irrespective of method and practice. Their premise is based on research they conducted which yielded a seven-stage developmental framework for leaders. Torbert wrote that leaders evolve to one of seven stages of leadership where they will most likely stay for the better portion of their lives with a few continuing to slowly evolve into higher levels. This evolution is guided by the experiences of the individual which start early in life. Leadership development, according to Julian Simcox, commences well before we hold our first job.
Torbert and his associates asserted that only in the last three of the seven stages of leadership development do individuals have enough reflective meaning-making to successfully drive transformational change. These researchers argue that a high level of internal awareness is necessary for a leader to grasp all of the nuances present in large change situations. Torbert defines these later-stage leaders as transformative learners, or those who are in a constant path of self-development. This notion of transformative leaders as being self-transforming is well addressed in the literature of leadership studies; however, Torbert and his associates are more deliberate in their pronouncement and associate certain leadership developmental stages with a capability which presumably could have profound impact in the success of large transformational initiatives.
The subject of transformational change is not new. The results have not improved even with the ever-increasing amount of materials available on the subject. As documented in the 2010 IBM study Capitalizing on Complexity, the priority for most organizational leaders is dealing with complexity driven by the structures of globalization, world economies, shifts in consumer power, environmental concerns and the need for organizations to address the evolving requirements of their social systems. This complexity seems to present even larger challenges to the mostly unsuccessful transformational initiatives.
Torbert’s leadership stage development framework appears promising in explaining why only a third of the large change projects succeed. From his research, the author posits that only 15 percent of the leader population has the capability to execute transformational change. Assuming a company of a thousand people with a five-to-one leader-to-follower ratio, only 30 people in that organization would have a developed sense of how to successfully lead a transformational initiative. Given that most organizations and leaders are not familiar with Torbert’s work, it stands to reason that their transformational initiatives are not consciously staffed to include one or more of these latter stage leaders. Consequently, transformational projects will have a random chance of success based on their leader membership.
Assuming that the research of Torbert and his associates is correct and that leadership stage development is a key determinant of the success of transformational change in an organization, then conscious assignment of leaders based on their developmental stages is paramount. This is most fundamental relative to transformational leaders, but it also applies to the inclusion of the other stages of leadership development. As an analogy, a championship soccer team has experienced and accomplished players in all of its playing positions. In this type of team, a midfielder is as important as a striker. A soccer coach would not dream of showing up to a game without 11 players with experience and expertise in each position. On the other hand, most change project teams are assembled based on roles, organizational politics and on who is available. To make matters worse, we are clueless on the leaders’ developmental stages and on the unintended consequences of their assignment.