Crucial Steps for Change Leaders

Leadership | Change

“Change is the only constant.” – Heraclitus, Greek philosopher

If you’ve been asked to step up as an individual leader in your organization, it’s likely at least part of your role is to catalyze change. After all, no one is asked to be a leader to maintain the status quo.

As an individual change leader, don’t underestimate your personal ability to help or hinder the change process. A key aspect of leading change is to maintain self-awareness of your thought processes. Manage yourself, your beliefs, and your behaviors to have a more positive impact. Self-management means staying aware of your own – and others’ — Ladder of Inference.


The Ladder of Inference

Chris Argyris' Ladder of Inference model is a way of illustrating how we move from data (something said, experienced, or observed), through a series of mental processes, to reach a final supposition. We select data, translate it into our own terms, explain it to ourselves, and come to our conclusion. The process happens instantaneously, and often we’re unaware that we’re being selective about what data we choose. No one else sees our thought processes, or knows what data we’ve relied upon, or the steps we’ve gone through to reach our conclusions. All they see is the action we take as a result. Learn more about the Ladder.

What’s key here is that we (and others) generally operate from a limited set of data points based on our own past experiences. This is important to consider when, as leaders, we attempt a change effort – it really can impede our efforts if we’re not careful.


Step off the Ladder

Dr. John Kotter developed an eight-step change process outlining what needs to happen for successful transformation. We’ll use it to explore how the Ladder of Influence can affect change processes. At each step in the change timeline, one’s own ladder — or another’s — can aid or hamper the forward change movement. The savvy individual leader will reflect on his or her own ladder of inference to prevent delays or outright failure when implementing each of the eight steps.

  1. Creating a sense of urgency. This isn't simply a matter of telling people “we need this change.” Their ladders of inference may be built on data points that tell them, “This is the way it’s always been; it’s just fine the way it is.” As a change leader, you must deliver new data that creates that sense of urgency and quashes complacency.
  2. Forming a powerful guiding coalition. To do this, we may need to reach out and include people with whom we don’t have strong relationships. We must open up our minds (and theirs) to recruit change champions, and get influencers on our team. What does our ladder tell us about these potential allies — that “they’re difficult?” How can we get a new perspective?
  3. Creating a vision. As change leaders, we need to get off our ladders if they are getting in the way of our seeing all the possibilities. We must challenge ourselves to expand the range of possibilities that we can imagine.
  4. Communicating the vision. Often, we’re so close to the change that we think we’ve communicated the vision often and thoroughly, even when we’ve only communicated it once. We have to realize that getting people down from their ladders — which may be telling them change is too difficult — means a constant stream of communication will be necessary. The key is to create a two-way communication; dialogue is crucial.
  5. Getting rid of the obstacles to change. Helping others recognize and own their own ladders, and see things from another perspective. What are the true obstacles? What new data points can be introduced to help people see and understand them, and commit to removing them?
  6. Creating short-term wins. Short term wins are critical to helping others come down the ladder. For many, unsuccessful change may be part of an ingrained data set. Short term wins may be the new information they need to get onboard. Don’t under-estimate how much people need these.
  7. Consolidating improvements. Of course, this is how you build on Step 6 and achieve lasting change. Think about promoting people who can help socialize the change, choosing people who already have come down off their ladders
  8. Institutionalizing the new change. When you’ve reached Step 8, ideally, people have new ladders – new ladders that support the change!


Change Your Ladder, Change Your Results

A wise man once said, “Nothing gets better by chance; things get better by change.” Sometimes, the first step on the road to a big, better change is a small change to our own awareness.

About Betina Schonberger

For more than 15 years, Betina has worked for and with global Fortune 500 companies, government, and non-profits, helping organizations accelerate their successes through strategic partnership development, people-oriented management, customer engagement, and cross-functional collaboration. Betina holds a master's in business administration from Thunderbird: The American Graduate School of International Management, and a bachelor’s degree in international relations from the University of British Columbia.