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Leading Organizational Change – Art or Science?

For better or worse, leading organizational change – especially for an external consultant – tends to carry a certain mystique. Perhaps this exists because some aspects of organizational change are intangible, unplanned, and require intuition. Thus, leaders seek out a consultant who can spread “magic dust” throughout the organization to get people to change and follow a new vision. This scenario may sound farfetched, but leaders often struggle to understand and explain how organizational change management gets the results we deliver. As a result, the profession of organizational change management often gets labeled as an art.

In contrast, I once worked for a consulting firm where every step of their organizational change methodology was meticulously scripted and documented in step-by-step procedures and workflows. As a young consultant, these thick spiral bound manuals and charts gave me a sense of security and competence. However, a perception was created that leading organizational change was merely a matter of following the steps of an elaborate cooking recipe. So, which is it? Is leading successful organizational change an art or a science?

I discovered the answer to that question many years ago during a job interview for a company that manufactured components for commercial and military aircraft, ships, and submarines. Near the end of the interview, I could see that the hiring manager liked my background, but he sensed the position was a bit of a stretch. He asked his final interview question: Have you ever worked on a submarine? I told him, “No” – and quickly wondered how that could be a relevant question and qualification for the job.

Next, the hiring manager explained the context behind his question: A submarine is a very defined and tight workspace filled with steep stairs and narrow halls. During crucial periods of work, sailors must move throughout the sub with speed and agility to the point where they intuitively know when to lift their feet over a raised doorway and duck their heads when passing through a stairway with little overhead clearance. In essence, the hiring manager used the submarine question as an analogy to let me know I had not yet reached the point in my career where I intuitively knew where to lift my feet and duck my head during crucial periods of work. I was still working on the science side of my profession and had not yet reached the art side.

Fast forward 15 years since that interview, and today I know instinctively where to raise my feet and duck my head as I quickly navigate the corridors of organizational change. My point is this: leading organizational change is both an art and a science. Leaders who are new to organizational change management should first learn and master the science side of the equation. This includes learning and applying proven change methodologies and behavioral psychology principles. Over time and with patience, your ability to successfully lead change will transcend the science and become an art form as you learn to trust your intuition and learn where and how to adapt and synthesize these scientific concepts to the meet the needs of your organization.

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