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A Leader's Role: How to Cope with Rapid Change

The following abbreviated version of:  Change Leadership in the Age of Disruption: HR as Change Catalyst was recently published in the Fall 2017 issue of Physicians Report.

Rapid-change events in local, national, and international cultures and economies are challenging traditional expectations in the workplace—and forcing leaders, especially physician leaders, to face the unknown. Countless articles discuss the barrage of disruptions that organizations and people are facing. One of these notes that, in the year studied, one in four organizations undertook a significant change initiative every other month. [ATD/i4cp, “Change Agents: The Role of Organizational Learning in Change Management”  (Alexandria, VA: ASTD Press, 2014)] Many have also written (on LinkedIn, Harvard Business Review, FastCo, Forbes, and BizWeek, among others) about the sobering reality that roughly 75 percent of all change efforts fail. 

change in hands.jpeg



A Google search for “change management” yields more than 94 million results. Missing from the literature, however, are practical approaches to objectively assessing the types of change organizations face, and the implications for how we respond as leaders. With health care now in a permanent state of disruption, we need ways to understand the nature and types of changes we face, respond to them strategically, and develop tactical solutions accordingly. Physician leaders can help others begin to see change as ongoing, evolutionary, and emergent. This opens the possibility of responding intentionally to change, rather than simply reacting to it.

Thought leaders have identified two distinctly different types of challenges. Originally described by Ronald Heifetz, founding director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government, technical challenges are relatively easy to define and understand, and you can

organize and manage solutions to them as enterprise initiatives. By contrast, adaptive challenges are ambiguous and hard to define, and sometimes even undetectable to the people facing them.


“The single biggest failure of leadership is treating
adaptive challenges like technical problems.”
—Ronald Heifetz



Traditional change management models respond well to technical challenges. At the enterprise level, John Kotter’s 8 Steps (or variations on that model) can be effectively used to manage, control, and communicate technical change initiatives both large and small. At the individual level, William Bridges’ Transition Model and the Prosci ADKAR Model describe the psychological stages people go through as they face change. These models are important because a frequent cause of failure in change management is a lack of attention to stakeholder reactions or receptivity, as well as misaligned expectations regarding the willingness of people to get on board. Organizations employ these methodologies to manage reactions to change, often using a variety of models in tandem to tackle such technical challenges as an ERP implementation, a re-org, or a facility move.

Many of the changes health care organizations are facing now, however, are adaptive in nature. They require leaders who have developed mindset qualities that do not come naturally, such as introspection and self-governance. Adaptive leadership often requires a change in attitudes and beliefs about what it means to be a leader—deeper work than what is typically involved in a leadership development program focused on knowledge and skill development. Yet it is attitudinal development that enables leaders to navigate increasingly complex operating environments and provide critical system-level leadership. 

Moreover, when you change deeply held attitudes, beliefs, and notions of purpose and identity, the experience can be richly rewarding and transformative.


“Progress is impossible without change,
and those who cannot change their minds 
cannot change anything.”
—George Bernard Shaw



This type of complex cognitive development results in more effective and professional leadership, along with a healthy dose of personal fulfillment. Mindset changes are often challenging, complicated, personally difficult, and time-consuming. They require stepping outside of your comfort zone. For many, the emphasis on traditional leadership competencies and effectiveness can create a false sense of security.

While relatively little has been written about the specific competencies change leaders need, there are a few noteworthy exceptions. My colleague Nancy Winship describes several of them in Meta-Skills for Adaptive/Agile Leadership in a “VUCA” Landscape. Doug Ready at the International Consortium for Executive Development Research similarly describes "4 Things Successful Change Leaders Do Well". Nate Boaz and Erica Ariel Fox at McKinsey & Company make a useful distinction between two types of self-awareness in Change Leader, Change Thyself. One of these is an awareness of one’s competencies, which serves as a strong foundation for adaptive leadership development.

If physician leaders can improve their awareness and understanding of the types of change they face, they can respond better at a personal level while supporting their organizations’ responses to change. The sooner we make distinctions between the types of change we are facing, the sooner we can employ the right tools to address them.


About the author: 

Kevin Osborne

Kevin Osborne LinkedIn Profile
Vice President, Client Services | Waldron 

Driven by a life-long interest in how people and organizations develop, Kevin works with senior leaders to drive organization effectiveness via strategic talent initiatives and individual leader development/transition.