Stage 2 of the 8-Stage Process of Transformation
Build a Guiding Coalition
Part of our Series on Leading & Adopting Change
If you’re a leader desiring to modernize your agency or transform your organization in some other way, you already feel a strong sense of urgency.
Perhaps the first stage of a transformation effort – establish a sense of urgency – is not only something you understand but are actively doing. Whether you have just started this process or are far along, it’s important to consider what will happen when this urgency has spread through your organization.
Generally, there are three methods for guiding a transformation effort:
- A single, highly influential leader initiates the effort and through charisma and willpower tries to see it through to completion
- A visionary leader (perhaps with the blessing of a C-level executive) initiates a transformation effort, and joins or delegates a small committee to try to see the effort through to completion
- A guiding coalition with the right composition of members is empowered to complete the transformation effort
As soon as an organization begins to build a sense of urgency, it’s important as a leader to know how that new energy is going to be wielded. According to John Kotter in his book Leading Change, the most effective wielder of this energy, the one most likely to succeed in a transformation effort, is a guiding coalition. To understand why, let’s compare these three methods.
Three Different Methods to Guide Transformation Efforts
I. A Single Influential Leader
Famous transformation efforts are often associated with one highly charismatic person (just google “leaders who turned companies around” to find many well-known examples). The conclusion that most organizations make is common: for transformation to happen, a unique, highly influential person must emerge and take the reins.
A single leader can be effective at changing an organization if the following four (4) characteristics describe that leader and their marketplace:
- The pace of change in their market is not fast (there is ample time to slowly change)
- The leader knows their industry well
- The leader is very competent
- The company is in a strong position to handle errors/issues that arise when less-than-optimal decisions are made
An individual leading a transformation effort alone comes with significant drawbacks:
- The process will inherently be slow and linear (for every decision, the leader must speak with multiple stakeholders, sometimes one at a time)
- The leader will not always be well-informed with real-time information
- Obtaining buy-in from people (and therefore, implementation of the transformation) will be difficult
- As the organization is faced with faster, substantial changes, this method will be too slow to succeed
Ultimately, powerful force is required to sustain a transformation effort. The speed and size of change that companies face today, especially Government agencies, ensures that no one person can succeed in guiding their organization through significant transformations. The process is too slow and too weak.
II. A Small Taskforce / Special Committee
When an organization lacks an influential leader, or the executive team is “too busy” to get involved, organizations commonly decide to delegate the guidance of the change effort to a special team. A taskforce is formed of a few people in different departments, and perhaps an up and coming leader motivated to see change is given the go ahead to try to make the project happen.
Like an influential leader, change committees can succeed, but only under certain conditions:
- The “transformation effort” is more like a project, with clear limits on the time and budget needed to succeed
- The technological and competitive changes needed are limited in how fast they come and their effect on the organization
- The company is small
- The committee has the ear of the executive team, who can make decisions and smaller changes based on the committee’s recommendations
There are several problems with this kind of committee:
- Membership does not consist of the top 3-4 individuals on the executive team
- A lack of trust between members prevents the needed sacrifice, commitment, and consensus to come together (all of these are needed to overcome inevitable problems)
- The group lacks credibility, due to lack of executive commitment and overall trust
- Without credibility, the rest of the organization, including senior management, will soon realize that the effort will fail, ignoring or actively resisting the committee’s recommendations
Just as reliance on a single, influential leader to guide a transformation fails, so does handing the responsibility to a committee lacking credibility, trust, and power. Kotter concludes that in today’s world, where organizations must be able to keep pace with fast changes, only a guiding coalition can succeed.
III. A Guiding Coalition
Leading Change defines a guiding coalition as a team that has the power, information, and credibility needed to lead their organization in a significant transformation effort.
Six (6) key characteristics of the coalition are members that:
- Have a diversity of hierarchy, function, location, tenure, and ideas
- Have information and experience of the organization at all levels
- Have a shared vision/ objective
- Are committed to the transformation effort
- Are empowered to make decisions for the organization
- Trust one another
Besides successfully completing change efforts, here are three specific benefits of a guiding coalition. They:
- Can gather and process a lot of information quickly
- Are comprised of powerful people who are informed and committed to decisions
- Speed implementation of new approaches
If coalitions are this beneficial and powerful, why don’t organizations always use them to guide change?
Here are a few reasons:
- Team vs. individual conflict of interest; teams are not promoted, individuals are, so being a part of a coalition is not an effective way for ambitious people to advance
- People love to talk “team,” but in reality most organizations are very hierarchical
- Most people have bad experiences with poorly functioning committees and are therefore skeptical about the coalition’s effectiveness
- Leaders with strong urgency find it difficult to wait for the necessary trust to develop in a coalition, and are easily tempted to race ahead to create the change
Even though building a guiding coalition is difficult, it is an essential piece of a transformation effort. Without one, big transformation efforts struggle to succeed.
There are three keys for a Guiding Coalition to be able to succeed in leading a transformation effort: its composition, level of trust, and common goals. Let’s look at each of these.
Three Keys for Successful Guiding Coalitions
I. Composition of a Guiding Coalition
As urgency for change is growing across an organization, leaders should be looking to recruit members into a coalition to manage and lead the effort. These members need specific characteristics to ensure success of the group, including:
- Position power: some executives and main line managers must be included
- Expertise: representing different points of view and expertise
- Credibility: strong reputations in the organization, or at least in their respective departments
- Leadership: related to credibility, you need proven leaders who can drive the change process forward
- Leadership & Management skills: collaborating to drive change and keep the process under control
When recruiting members of the coalition, it’s important that leaders pay attention to individuals with specific, negative qualities, that can derail the entire process.
Here are some key qualities to avoid:
- Huge egos - instead, the coalition needs people who recognize their own weaknesses, appreciate other people’s strengths, and can subjugate their own interests to a greater goal
- Mistrustful – experts at gossip or undermining relationships on the team
Finally, leaders should be wary of “central” employees who are reluctant about the transformation effort. Perhaps it’s someone with tenure at the company suspicious of change. It’s vital to not work around these people, as their lack of support can undermine your efforts. It’s important to come alongside them to grow their sense of urgency and willingness to join as members of the coalition.
II. Level of Trust
Trust is the key component that an organization needs to rise above “team talk” and create real teamwork. Many agencies operate with strong intradepartmental loyalties (“silos”), creating mistrust, a lack of communication, and nothing resembling teamwork at the organizational level. The reason for this is because trust is hard to build and takes a lot of time (time that motivated leaders often feel should be spent “moving forward” with real action, instead).
There are several ways a leader can help members of the Guiding Coalition grow in mutual understanding, communication, and trust. Some of these strategies are covered more in-depth in Leading Change, but the strategy that is most effective is carefully planned, offsite events. In between such events, leaders must follow up with members to ensure understanding, communication, and trust continue to be built.
III. Common Goals
As a coalition is formed, one of the underlying questions in each member’s mind will be, “Why? I feel urgency to see big changes happen, but what is the goal of this group, and why am I part of it?”
It’s vital that leaders help the coalition form goals that drive their efforts forward. More of this will be talked about in the next article, Stage 3, but for now, here are the important qualities of the group sharing a goal:
- As trust is built, shared goals will begin to emerge
- Goals that are sensible to the head and appealing to the heart
- A commitment to excellence, and the will to help the entire organization become so committed
Here is a simple formula to represent how effective coalitions come together:
Trust + Common goal = Powerful Team
Making Change Happen
Guiding Coalitions are needed because on its own, an organization is full of inertia and complacency.
When people believe that transformation is necessary, and that a strong team is needed to make it happen, they will actually operate as a team, rise to the challenges, and make the sacrifices needed to succeed.