August 2, 2017  
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The Three-Leader Litmus Test


What is the real definition of successful organizational change? Efforts to evaluate organizational change initiatives focus on quantitative metrics. A “hard number” states unequivocally that targets are exceeded, met, or not met relative to a specific time period. Engineers and financial professionals are especially enamored of this approach. Metrics are comfortable, convenient, and necessary… but do not even come close to effectively grading the value of any given change initiative.

After 35 years of working on organizational change initiatives—ranging from pilot approaches to full site transformations—I rank such comfortable metrics as no better than a distant second choice. These numbers, good or bad, give only an initial impression, and miss (by a wide margin) what is really important.

The real metric lies in what I call the “Three Leader Litmus Test.”
Capital projects, improvement projects, work redesigns or reorganizations are all inherently cultural change initiatives. Getting a group of people to do something in a different way—in concert with different people, often across siloed boundaries, with different equipment, in a different sequence for different/better results—requires massive cultural change. Companies often say: “people are our most important asset.” Maybe—but people are also emotional, opinionated, and hard-headed. They are not machines. They do not behave like machines and never will. Unless there are no human beings in the workplace, change will always be chaotic and messy.

I recently attended a three-hour meeting to discuss the factory of the future. Within the first 15 minutes, the speaker emphasized the human issues in such a factory. The next 2¾ hours were spent talking about Distributed Control Systems, Artificial Intelligence, and remotely controlled operations; never again were the people a part of the equation. People and teams are so difficult to create, adapt, and lead that it is simpler to note this reality and move on to the technology. This is exactly what happens in real-life projects.

Who are the ‘Three Leaders’?
The first leader is the Initiating Leader. If the project has any chance of success, it is because this individual is strong enough to shield the impacted organization from the insanities, stupidities, and vicissitudes that are legion in any major project. Assuming this leader is strong enough—and such strength and skill is very rare indeed—your project is likely to survive first contact with the real world.
Under an Initiating Leader, a Vision will be laid out that is believable and compelling. The Vision will be strong enough to break through the nearly impenetrable road block of the “flavor of the month” disease. A plan will be crafted that addresses critical skill gaps and makes the workforce believe that just maybe this time will be different. This Vision will be connected to the competitive reality in a way that enables people to believe that “we” are actually in this one together.

An Initiating Leader will be driven by doing what is right. This leader will be able to defend the project from the torrential storm of well-intentioned, risk-averse managers whose (often, but not always) well-meaning questions and pushback are the kiss of death for most projects.

If you are incredibly fortunate, the second Leader will be the Sustaining Leader. This is generally someone who was a part of the original design/implementation team. This leader was present from conception to detailed planning, from the creation of a selection process to the onboarding of chosen team members, and on through implementation to the first, second and third course corrections. They “get” the Vision viscerally and are passionate about the work design. They know it is the best path for the facility, the company, and the workforce. They believe this, down to the bone. They may not be able to create the Vision, but they will charge hell with a bucket of ice water to try and make the transition work.

The third Leader is an Adaptive Leader. This individual can create survival-level change while cleaving unto the framework of the original Vision. During almost every project effort, major alterations will be necessary for the survival of the installed work system; the Adaptive Leader can distinguish false steps from real adaptations. They are almost able to peek around the corner to the future to boldly and accurately predict what is necessary to survive and thrive. They may or may not have been a part of the original leadership team. They will have the intestinal fortitude and political acumen necessary to shield the team from assaults based on short-term changes in upper management and business conditions. Again, this is a very rare capability.

Unfortunately, finding and putting in place the Adaptive Leader almost never happens. Most often, you’ll get the Narcissistic Leader—and this is where close to 90 percent of all projects move from a chance for success to the failure category. This leader did not come of age in the new system. They believe that they have a better answer, and are desperately driven to prove their merit and worth. They want badly to climb the ladder. They are often put in place at a time when Corporate has forgotten the investment made, and success achieved, with the experimental endeavor. This leader wants immediate movement towards his or her new and improved Vision—and that will kill any chance of success.

Keepers of the Vision
At this point it is generally the shop floor workforce who are the keepers of the Vision. They have a clear grasp of how bad work was under the old system; what it has become for such a brief, alive moment since change implementation; and what the nearly-inevitable coming destruction of hope and meaningful work will mean. They will fight to keep it alive.

I have advised team members in organizational change projects to beware that if they join and discover success, and leadership cannot stay the course, they will forever be ruined. Returning to a regressed work environment is anathema. They will have had a taste of what can be and the loss of that reality is terribly painful; both the hourly and salaried workers will be horribly disillusioned once again. Nevertheless, more often than not a significant percentage of the workforce will sign up because in their hearts they know there is a better way.

So, what determines a “successful” change? The only metric that counts is whether it survives past the third Leader. Therefore, the time framework in this litmus test is very long: five to seven years is a minimum, and more likely it will be 10 years or longer. Are you willing to go the distance? Do you have the courage to outlast the naysayers, the climbers, and the egomaniacs? Do you have the patience to survive the business cycles—the flush times and the constrained cost times?

If the answer is NO, then take a deep breath, step back, count to 100 and let’s think about what can be done within the confines, conflicts and constraints of your organization. What can we do that will have a significant impact and a reasonable likelihood of sustaining some level of improvement? There are actually very good outcomes to be had—not “flavor of the month” mush but real, achievable and bottom-line-advantaged change.

If the answer is YES, then I may ask you for a job, because working in that kind of an environment is something people who have experienced it will remember and strive to find again for the rest of their professional and personal lives! More importantly, when it is truly time to apply the hard metrics, they will prove that the transformation was worth the time, money and energy. You will have a sustainable competitive advantage, with only one caveat—remember the Heraclitus quote: “The only thing that is constant is change.”

Author info:
S. Eric Christensen, Ed.D. has more than 35 years of experience designing and implementing sustainable work system/cultural change initiatives. As owner of Change That Works, LLC, and as an internal consultant with several large forest products companies, he has worked with industry clients on a variety of mill-based change initiatives. Reach him by e-mail at, or visit the website at


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