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Leading Strategic Change

Breaking Through the Brain Barrier


J. Stewart Black and Hal B. Gregersen

Prentice Hall, 2002, 188 pp.

ISBN 0-13-046108-3


Black is professor of business administration at the University of Michigan.  Gregersen is professor of global leadership at Brigham Young University.  The principles are simple and well illustrated in the arena of corporate growth.  Someone said they thought it was the best book on leading change. 


Ch 1. The Challenge of Leading Strategic Change

“Lasting success lies in changing individuals first; then the organization follows.  An organization changes only as far or as fast as its collective individuals change.”  “Instead of an organization in approach, we take an individual out approach.  To repeat—to strategically change your organization, you must first change individuals.” (2)


“Change has never been easy.”  “Humans are biologically hard-wired to resist change.” (3) 


“The faster a leader tries to force change, the more shock waves of resistance compact together, forming a massive barrier to success.”  “Leaders confront a ‘brain barrier’ composed of preexisting and successful mental maps.”  (6)  “Map Makers of change must comprehend, break through, and ultimately redraw individual mental maps, one by one, person by person, again and again.” (8)


Change fails because:

  1. People fail to see the need to change.
  2. Even when they see the need, they fail to move.
  3. Even when they move they fail to finish.  (8)


The fundamental process or cycle of change: “

Stage 1: Do the right thing and do it well.

Stage 2: Discover that the right thing is now the wrong thing.

Stage 3: Do the new right thing, but do it poorly at first.

Stage 4: Eventually do the new right thing well.” (13)


Ch 2. Brain Barrier #1: Failure to See

“If people fail to see the need for change, they will not change.” (20)  We ignore the evidence “because we are blinded…by the light of what we already see,…a history of success.” (21)


People have existing mental maps.  They have worked and they continue to work.  The old dog has difficulty unlearning old tricks.  Some are successful even though their maps are mistaken or distorted.  “Just because a map works does not mean that it accurately reflects all the terrain.”  As long as you don’t venture outside your area of focus, it may work fairly well.  Since the map works at home, you tend to stay at home!  Even as the map begins to appear wrong, there is great pressure to respond by doing what you know to do.  (32)  The longer the map works, the more difficult it is to change.  (41)


Ch 3.  The Keys to Seeing: Contrast and Confrontation

In complex organizational settings, people can selectively focus on elements from the past and present that are similar and ignore key contrasts.  We can be blind to the “obvious” differences.  “Leaders have to confront their people with the key contrasts between the past, present, and future.” (47)


“Leaders have to simplify and focus on the key differences.” (51)  Cut to the core.  What are the core contrasts between the past and the future? (52)  Ratchet up contrast.  Use simple visuals. (53)


A key mistake is to present the contrast only once and think people will “get it.” (50)  “Present the contrasts repeatedly so employees don’t view them as ‘one-time passing parades’ that they can simply wait out.” (55)


Create an inescapable experience.  Put people directly in front of the most important and forceful aspects of the contrast.” (56-7)


Summary: “

  1. Repeat the messages of the old and new maps over and over and over again.
  2. Create high-impact, inescapable confrontations.
    1. Focus the experience on what you think are the core contrasts.  Do not dilute it with too much complexity.
    2. Make sure that the experience involves as many of the senses as possible.  There are few effective substitutes for live, fully engaged action.
    3. Physically ensure that people cannot easily avoid the experience but must take the brunt of it right between the eyes.” (58)


Ch 4. Brain Barrier #2: Failure to Move

Even if we see that the old no longer works, we don’t move if the new map with its destination and path is not clear.  (68)  “Quite often the clearer the new vision, the more immobilized employees become.”  “People recognize that they cannot go directly…to doing the new right thing well.  They understand that they will go from doing the wrong thing well to doing the right thing poorly.”  “Most of us do not like to be bad at something, especially if we are already good at something else.” (69-70)  Movement is unlikely until employees plainly see a promising path to competence.  (73)


Ch 5. The Keys to Moving: Destinations, Resources, and Rewards

Helping others believe they can get there requires:

  1. A clear target
  2. Appropriate skills, resources, and tools
  3. Valuable rewards along the journey  (76)


“If the direction and destination are not clear, your motivation to move forward is nil.”  “Often leaders think the new right thing is crystal clear but subordinates report …a fog.”  (77)  “Ask your people directly and indirectly to describe (or literally draw) each key element of the new map.” (78)  Ask them to speculate about its possible implications.  (79)


Find out whether they believe they have the required resources and provide any missing.  Employees ask themselves, “If I try, can I do it?”  If the answer is no, they won’t move.  (81)


Be sure the reward for moving is motivating to each individual. (85)


People must see in their own minds (not yours) where they are going.  They must believe they have the required resources to get there and that outcomes they value will result. (87)


Ch 6.  Brain Barrier #3: Failure to Finish

The full benefit of “organizational” change cannot be realized until the majority of “individuals” change.  “Quite simply, new transformational strategies do not make a difference until people think and act differently.”  People fail to finish because they get tired or they get lost.  (91)


“Proximate” factors, such as the boss’s example, reinforcement from peers and punishment from customers, drive behaviors more than “remote” factors such as organizational strategy, structure, or even compensation.  (93)


Employees, walking in the proven paths, resist changes based on whims.  They stick with what works.  “If you are trying to get employees to think and behave differently, their willingness initially to walk by faith is a function of how much they trust you.” (94)


Workers are smart.  They look for reward vs. effort of what they do now compared to the anticipated new.  (96)


Ch. 7.  The Keys to Finishing: Champions and Charting

“The champion is needed next to the action when it happens.”  Senior executives “need to manifest their support by ensuring that there are champions of the change at the point and time in which the early walks by faith occur.” (107)  “They must know what to look for and what to reinforce.”  “Initially, you are looking for efforts.”  “Unless you stay close to the action initially, the natural and likely negative results can easily kill the desired behavior.” (108)


“When it comes to measuring progress, it needs to be done both at the executive suite and in the trenches.”  Performance, good and bad, needs to be communicated.  Otherwise the worker imagines the worst.  (109)  “Achieving success also requires monitoring and communicating at the individual level.” (110)


Ch 8.  Breakthrough Innovation and Growth

The biggest obstacle to greater growth is often getting employees to see new opportunities.  (114)  They work in a box of existing products (vertical side) and existing customers (lateral side) and this world looks big.  But you can make this box one corner of four boxes where the three new ones are new products, new customers and new products and customers.  Now your box looks smaller and opportunity looks bigger.  You can add four more boxes by going three dimensional and adding new approaches as another axis.  The author illustrates with corporate examples.


Ch 9.  Leading Strategic Change Toolkit: Conceiving

[This begins a practical section of providing tools to help individuals conceive, move, and finish.]


“Andy Grove, Chairman of the Board at Intel, was once asked how he found time as a senior executive to train leaders at Intel’s supervisory development programs.  His instant quip was, ‘Where can I get more leverage in shaping the future of Intel?’”  Jack Welch said, “When you retire, you won’t remember what you did in the first quarter of last year, or the third.  You’ll remember how many people you developed….” (136)


“When you’re confused about how you’re doing as a leader, find out how the people you lead are doing.” (136)


“If you want others to change, you need to demonstrate your own willingness and ability to change.”  “The most effective value-adding leaders teach others what they know and how to do it.”  (137)


“We have rarely seen a ratio greater than one change leader to 100 individuals result in significant, lasting strategic change.” (138)


“A high dose of inquisitiveness enhances a person’s willingness and ability to change.”


Questions for your IQ (inquisitiveness index): (141-42)

  1. When confronted with things I don’t understand, I am not satisfied until I figure out the answers.
  2. Whenever I need energizing, I find something new to learn about.
  3. Others describe me as a very inquisitive person.
  4. Meeting and getting to know people with unusual backgrounds is interesting and enjoyable.
  5. Learning new things is more enjoyable than making more money.
  6. I frequently enjoy trying new and novel things.
  7. I learn something new every day.
  8. Compared to most people that I know, I pursue new knowledge in my profession much more actively.
  9. People say that I constantly examine experiences and extract the lessons to be learned.
  10. I actively seek out unfamiliar places and opportunities to learn when traveling away from home.


To boost your inquisitiveness, reconfigure personal routines.  (145)


Look for contrasts in the following core areas: customers, competition, technology, products and services.  (147)


Ch. 10.  Leading Strategic Change Toolkit: Believing

“The key practical step in establishing effective targets is translating the vision of the new right thing into concrete behaviors.” (154)


Ch. 11. Leading Strategic Change Toolkit: Achieving

Identify in advance likely negative consequences for less than ideal proficiency in the new behaviors.  Make explicit what actions change champions should take when people exhibit the right behaviors but do not get the desired consequences.  (166-67)


One must systematically assess required capabilities, current capabilities, resulting gaps, and needed bridging actions to get breakthrough change.  (168)


To set up a monitoring and charting process:

  1. Identify (Limit the number) of key elements to monitor. 
  2. Decide how to measure the element.
  3. Determine how frequently to measure.
  4. Establish a baseline of performance before change begins.
  5. Establish target performance levels.  (171)


Decide who will receive the information.  Employees never feel that too many people are getting the information on how things are progressing.  (172-73)


Ch. 12. Getting Ahead of the Change Curve

Three kinds of change: anticipatory, reactive, crisis.  To initiate change when the signs and signals indicating its need are far off is the most difficult.  Crisis change is the easiest to initiate and lead but the most costly for nearly everyone affected.  Anticipatory change is where the potential payoffs are the biggest.  (178-87)


Core conviction:  “By changing individuals, we change organizations.” (188)

Further best reading on leading change:

Leading Change, John P. Kotter, Harvard Business School Press, 1996.

Leading Change, James O’Toole, Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1995


See also:

Better Change, Best Practices for Transforming Your Organization, Price Waterhouse Change Integration Team

Managing Transitions, William Bridges,