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Change happens in the…Middle

November 18, 2014

A recent HBR article by Behnam Tabrizi titled “The Key to Change Is Middle Management” makes some excellent points that we all should remember when challenged with a change.

“…Many change efforts fail because people reduce themselves to checking boxes in safe, defensible systems such as Lean and Six Sigma,” he writes. “Successful change leaders, on the other hand, are open, bold, and have a clear sense of their motivations.”

“Take, for example, Kirk Girard, planning manager for the County of Santa Clara, who was tasked with overhauling the permitting department, which issued 4,000 permits per year from behind a 70-foot-long counter with no public computers. When complaints to elected officials started mounting from property developers dissatisfied with delays, Girard pulled together a team from many divisions to address the problem. Drawing on his experiences as a sustainability advocate, he motivated the group by reminding them that people are more likely to abide by regulations if regulatory authorities are credible. The question then became: How to establish credibility by making permitting easier and quicker? With their goals aligned, the department was able to get rid of some of the hitches in the process, such as communication between siloed departments. The permitting time has since been nearly halved for key pilot projects.”

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Mr. Tabrizi is quite right about some of the success factors for leading change initiatives. Having alignment, being bold, operating quickly and using a defined process are critical to success. But in our work with effective change leaders, Linkage has also seen the absolute need for two additional areas of focus:


People will support efforts that they understand, and leaders whom they trust. Consistently communicating on an ongoing basis, from all levels of leadership (executives, mid-managers, supervisors and opinion leaders) leads to this trust from the entire organization.

We’ve always stressed to the clients we work with that explaining the 4 Ps (below) clearly and often increases the probability that your change efforts will succeed. Be prepared to explain:

Purpose: Why do the change?

Picture: What will success look like?

Plan: What are the steps to achieve success?

Part: What specific roles will employees play in the change efforts?


Skillful coaching is critical to successful change efforts because people go through change differently, and they can’t do it by themselves. Leaders who really listen to concerns and issues their people have and who can coach them to let go of the old ways and learn how to embrace the new approaches are essential to successful and sustainable change efforts. And as Mr. Tabrizi will surely agree, the most effective change leaders are rarely the most senior. Success often starts in the middle.

So let’s hear it. What has helped you and your organization navigate change?

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