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9 Leading through change

No man is an Island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main.

(John Donne, 1624 (2014) Meditation XVII)

Change is a seeming constant these days. Whether it is a political change, social change or organisational change, the world appears to be becoming more and more dynamic. The fixed points that we felt we could rely on are no more, and there is constant pressure on organisations and individuals to change, improve and adapt.

Activity 10 What is changing in your world?

Timing: Allow approximately 15 minutes

Think about and note down some of the things that are changing in your world. These could relate to any of the following areas:

  • personal
  • work
  • national.

What is the impact that each of these is having on you and your role as a leader?

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In many ways change is a constant and something that might seem to be out of our immediate control. Taking a moment to step back and understand both what is changing and the impact of these changes can help us to more effectively grapple with the challenges that emerge. This is most especially so if we are able to take back a sense of control and even pre-empt or ‘get ahead’ of the changes that might be coming our way in the future.

When considering change at all levels, the role of leadership cannot be ignored. Comparative research for CEPOL, the EU Agency for Law Enforcement Training, found that successful change processes in policing have several factors in common (Christe-Zeyse, 2013):

  • They are usually originated from within the police
  • The need for the change can be expressed in police terms
  • Good leadership is critical.

Whatever changes you and your organisation experience, the chances are that they will lead to a degree of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity, or VUCA – a term which has become increasingly popular as a way of describing the changes organisations have experienced. VUCA looks at those changes in terms of how much might be known about a situation (ranging from not very much to quite a bit) and how predictable the results are from actions you might take (ranging from completely unpredictable to highly predictable).

The VUCA diagram below has been completed from the perspective of a retailer experiencing change. It outlines characteristics and examples of each of the four elements of VUCA – volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity – as well as potential approaches to coping with those changes.

Described image
Figure 7 The four VUCA challenges (adapted from Bennett and Lemoine, 2014, p. 27)

Activity 11 How might VUCA events impact on you?

Timing: Allow approximately 10 minutes

As you reflect on the VUCA model consider the characteristics, example and approach in each quadrant. Can you envisage how these kinds of event might impact on you, your role or your organisation overall? You might wish to capture your thoughts in the box below.

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Considering the volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity inherent in the external environment can help you to pre-empt future challenges and also future opportunities.

An awareness of the relative degrees of volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity in any one situation, and particularly changes in that situation, can help you to evaluate any steps you might need to take as a leader to better support yourself and your colleagues. To any extent, your approach to leading through change will also depend on the nature of the change taking place. Is the change emergent (i.e. ongoing and fluid or spontaneous in nature) or is it planned? Is it simply one of fine-tuning (i.e. incremental) or does it involve a significant transformation of how policing services are delivered?

At the same time, however, your approach to leading through change will depend on the people within the organisation. How people respond to change can very much depend on their prior experiences and whether they are perhaps feeling ‘change fatigue’, defined by Stensaker et al. (2002, p. 298) as ‘the individual’s response of becoming disorientated or dysfunctional as a result of too much stimulation’ – or, in other words, feeling overwhelmed, exhausted and demoralised as a consequence of an ever-changing context and a perceived lack of control.

Ultimately, organisational change rarely goes according to plan. Given that you can never fully isolate the effects of uncertainty and change (Dawson, 1996), the leader’s role is today more critical than ever.

Activity 12 Your role as a leader in change

Timing: Allow approximately 10 minutes

In the following video, Temporary Assistant Chief Constable (T/ACC) Tim Mairs of the Police Service of Northern Ireland talks about the challenges of leading change.

As you are watching, reflect on your own experience of change – whether as someone leading change, someone who has been a member of a team or organisation which has undergone change or perhaps as a service user who has had to adjust to a changing context.

Make some notes about how effectively you feel the change was managed and how it might have been managed differently.

Download this video clip.Video player: Video 3
Skip transcript: Video 3 Temporary Assistant Chief Constable Tim Mairs discusses the challenges of leading change

Transcript: Video 3 Temporary Assistant Chief Constable Tim Mairs discusses the challenges of leading change

I think there's probably a couple of things that really define effective change to me. One is ownership. So it's not just something that is owned by the people who want to see the change happen, it's something that other people are bought into, it's something that other people feel that they've had an opportunity to structure.
I think a key part to that is communication. So being able to have those difficult conversations, but in doing that, make people aware of the need for change, and constantly updating them on an awful lot of issues, particularly, sometimes, the really minor hygiene factors. Because at the end of the day, sometimes the biggest things that concern us are those things that affect our everyday life. Where does my desk sit? Where am I getting changed in the morning? Which station or office am I going to work from? So constant communication. I don't think there's any such thing as overcommunication.
And the last big bit for me is stickability, that when we decide to change, we have to be disciplined about that, and we have to see that change through. And an awful lot of change processes, I think, fail because we just lose energy after the initial burst.
So I could well believe that statistic. I think because sometimes- or I'd say in a lot of cases- we don't do the legwork at the start. So we don't really research what the problems are and we don't really effectively research what the best solutions are. I think, secondly, we then fail to communicate the reasons for change, and ensure a really broad base of buy-in from people. And I think, thirdly, we fail to have the discipline, then, around delivering those changes. Sometimes that involves governance, and it involves things like paperwork, and it involves discipline that the likes of the PRINCE2 project management process brings for us.
Often, dynamic people and dynamic organisations like policing tend to be very uncomfortable with that kind of structure and governance, but it's absolutely critical when you're trying to deliver quite complex change over a sustained period of time. And I think, often, that lack of attention to discipline is where a lot of us fall down.
Absolutely not. And to me, some of the greatest change leaders have been people at all levels within the organisation. And I think it's a critical point to make that, actually, when you get into your process of change, you absolutely have to have people bought in at every single level. And I think you really see success in an organisation when change is led from the front line.
And particularly in policing, we have leaders at every level. When you turn up at the scene of a road traffic collision and it's in chaos, you're a leader. You're leading people at that stage. And people look to you for guidance and for direction. And it's those sort of skills that we need to harness to actually drive change at the front line.
I think when people in an organisation feel that change is something being done to them, that's almost pushing it into that 70% category. When people feel that change is something that's happening, and they have a sense of ownership and investment in it, then that's where you see really effective change, and that's when you can move towards continuous change and continuous evolution of an organisation.
So I think the three big things are communicate, communicate, and then finally, when you've done that, keep communicating. It's really important to explain to your people why we're getting into this change, to have that opportunity to talk about the challenges and the benefits, to allow people to buy into that and shape the change. But also, really, really critically, at the heart of it, is having that one-to-one conversation with people about what does this mean for me personally. Because in many cases, that fear and that sense of concern about change comes from, how is this going to impact my life? And when you can engage on a one-to-one level and get people a sense of confidence that their needs and concerns are at the heart of the change process, that undoubtedly makes it a far smoother and simpler process.
End transcript: Video 3 Temporary Assistant Chief Constable Tim Mairs discusses the challenges of leading change
Video 3 Temporary Assistant Chief Constable Tim Mairs discusses the challenges of leading change
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As T/ACC Mairs highlights, leading change can be both challenging and difficult. Nonetheless, there are times when we all need to adjust to a changing context and it is in these situations that leadership skills are required. For leaders, the challenge is two-fold: first, leaders must be able to recognise and themselves work with a changing context; second, leaders must be able to draw upon a repertoire of leadership skills and employ them appropriately depending on the needs of the situation and their team. Yet, more than just a challenge, this is an opportunity for individuals at all levels to really step up to leadership.


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