Bosses Need To Change, Too

Changes are weird. Every company needs one, but few succeed. Apparently 80% of change projects fail. And 90% of those which fail, fail because of the human factor, not because the new workflow didn’t work. I am sure this survey was anonymous. And I am also pretty sure most companies would never admit that they failed, or at least they would find a little thing that worked well, or they made the vision smaller on the way, or they’d say that they are still in the middle of the change process. Well, that would at least be an honest evaluation of the situation, as most companies will stay within the change status for while. I guess, “forever” is the better word here.

In order to judge if a change is successful, the goal would need to be clear from the beginning. And experience shows that this is not the case. Change is most of the times started with a problem, and the process is set up to find a solution for that problem. But often problems are bigger than one thinks and solutions that everyone can agree on are to small for any kind of problem. The problem needs to be answered with a vision, and then the change caters to the vision. Not to the problem.

What’s this article about? I had the pleasure and the honor to help various companies over the last ten years to adapt to new circumstances — company growth, internationalization, digitalization, restructuring. In this capacity I have interviewed numerous employees on all hierarchy levels and made some interesting observations, that I would like to share.

Typical Change Flow

Let me explain that graphic: Overall we can pretend that all parties within a company are split into three hierarchy levels across the yellow triangle. In reality there are unfortunately most of the times more levels than three, but that has no significance for the observation. On top are the owners, founders or the board, in the middle the top management — sometimes these are the CEOs, CMOs, COOs, etc. or the General Managers. Or the C level guys (and hopefully girls) will rather be in the top third, and the middle will be Managing Directors or Vice Presidents. Every company calls them differently, but there will always be the big leaders (top), the top managers (middle) and then the rest (bottom), meaning all managers and their teams.

The starting point for a change will most probably be a strategic vision that the top has developed. So, once it is clear where the company (actually only the top, for now!) wants to be in 5, 10 or 20 years, this vision is being communicated top down. From the board to the rest of the company — middle and bottom . That would be the red arrows under roman “I” in the graphic.

Not often enough, these visions that initiate the change programs, which will last and trouble the companies for years, have been developed in cooperation with the other thirds. But they should be! And that will bring us to the problem.

The middle is superior to the bottom. So is is their job to drive the bottom through the change. To make them change, to have them do the change. Change is always impacting the bottom most, because they do the work that now has to be different or is a different work altogether. So the bottom (and I do not mean this term disrespectful) is where issues appear first, where resistance is felt first, where people need to be fired first. And this is normal, because we are talking the foundation of the company.

But (a big “but”!) the real issue, and the most reasons for failures of change programs, do not origin at the bottom. The “bottom problems” will all be solved with time. People will be hired and fired, they will find their new position, they will get acquainted with new constellations and workflows. This naturally takes a lot of time, but it will work out. Their reporting line though is to the middle of the yellow triangle, and here we do not find the ones that created the change, but the ones that have to execute it. This would now be the red arrows under roman “II” in the graphic— leaving the top out.

3 issues:

  1. the middle might not be convinced that the change is the right one but they have to execute it anyway
  2. they have to face all the daily problems of the bottom, will be made responsible for it from the top and hence distant themselves more and more from the change which was not their idea in the first place
  3. finally (and of course) the change also gets to them! Once the bottom has changed the impact on the middle will be inevitable. They need to change, too: New ways of working, new roles and responsibilities, new hires and fires. Just like everyone else.

And those 3 issues lead to more issues.

  • the change slows down
  • the middle uses the bottom to present the top a possible failure
  • the change is changed
  • the bottom, which delivers their best, is irritated
  • directions and visions become blurry
  • no one knows anymore why we are doing this
  • all forces fight back to where we came from

I have experienced these almost automatically arriving change-changing processes in all my change assignments. This led me to the strong belief that Kotters eight steps to a successful change are not just “literature”, but a necessary guideline for all change processes.

© by John Kotter

Let’s link that back to our triangle from the top:

  1. Create Urgency will mostly be done by the top — but should be driven more and more also by the middle and the bottom, once companies discover the advantages of modern forms of organisation.
  2. The strong coalition is then minimum top and middle together, so that the middle can no longer pretend that the vision is not their’s.
  3. At this moment the problem is obvious and now a vision is needed to make clear where we are heading. This vision can and should be developed including all three levels. HR can play an important role here, playing the advocate for the bottom, and making sure their interests are being included in the vision. Unfortunately the middle is never doing this enough, although this being one of their key jobs today.
  4. Once the vision has been formulated it cannot be communicated enough, especially from the middle to the bottom. The bottom will face so many problems on the way, that the far away vision might sometimes vanish and needs re-awareness.
  5. This is the time of anticipation. Obvious obstacles, such as departments opposed to the change, are easily defined. But the difficult obstacles are the hidden ones. I bet there are members of the middle that have not openly communicated their views, because they think “this will all soon be over” and “back to normal”. More people than you think are not aware of what the change means for them personally.

… and the rest (6–8) is not linked to the triangle.

I am sure, some of my clients might read this now and think that I described them. But be assured: This is based on experience in a broad number of companies, not a single one. And this is exactly why I thought this might be worth an article here — or maybe even a second book, who knows ;)

My #1 learning: The restructuring that the digitalization made necessary for so many companies, has to be looked at in combination with “new work” ideas. I am convinced that we cannot overcome today’s challenges with the organizational ideas of yesterday. I wish more companies would take this time as the opportunity to experiment with new forms to organize themselves and to better enable their employees to deliver the innovation everyone needs so badly.

The middle plays a key role in this — and their change is the most delicate one. Their self-understanding needs a 180 degrees turnaround, which is difficult to manage. This is a group of people that are with the company for many years, their success is built on what they delivered so far, which is worth less and less in the new world, what they know has less and less value and the old-school “management rules” do not help anymore to enable, motivate and coach.

So, my #2 learning: If you are in the top and want to change your company, look less at the bottom, and more at the middle!

What do you think?

consultant and teacher, founder of the relevance methodolody and author of the book #BeyondDigital - find me at