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Into the unknown: how to lead transformational change

If you’re about to embark on change that’s going to truly transform your organisation, how will you make sure it succeeds?

The kind of change I’m talking about:

  • has so many elements and so many unknowns that you won’t be able to control all of them
  • involves significant shifts in behaviours, roles and responsibilities, processes, technology and how things are done
  • doesn’t have a defined outcome – the big idea is clear, but the view of the end state and the impact of change on people and the wider business is largely unknown
  • will take a long time, but no-one is sure how long
  • has such far and wide reach, your ability to control how people will respond is limited
  • means people will need to make very big changes to behaviour – to start acting in a way that’s counter to long-established company culture, for example.

We’ve been working with organisations making this kind of change for a long time. It’s helped us develop some golden rules for driving change that’s characterised by uncertainty and ambiguity.

Mix it up
We all have a tendency to look back on previous experience and achievements, and aim to recreate the things that worked well. But doing the same thing, based on the same thinking, won’t always work. So if you led on technology in the past, try leading on people for a change. If you always work with the same project team, try introducing new members. If you usually look internally or in your own industry, look externally at how others are creating change.

Put people in the picture
With transformational change, the future state is unknown. But if you want to engage people in the journey, you need to talk about what the new world might look and feel like. That doesn’t mean a broadcast approach. Story-sharing workshops, where employees have a chance to contribute their experiences and to build a picture of their future, can help shift mind-sets and get people engaged.

Start with the things you can control
Get some quick wins under your belt, then make decisions during roll-out to gradually increase the pace and scale of change.

TRANSFORMATION. A new approach to business transformation


Focus on the right things
It’s tempting to get distracted by the new and exciting elements of the change – or not to close something down because it’s a bit tedious. But this can make things confusing. Be firm about stopping anything unnecessary and keep your organisation focused.

Get out of the detail
It’s easy to get absorbed in detail, especially when you’ve been there, seen it and done it before. It’s important to share your experiences. But as a leader you need to stay a step back to view the whole picture and look at how everything is working and fitting together.

Ask questions and listen
Don’t think that, as a leader, you need to have all the answers. That’s just not possible. It’s more important to ask the right questions. Discussion forums can give everyone in the team the opportunity to help solve issues. Trust your intuition to know when to probe further and be confident enough to give work back to people – engaging and involving them in the change.

Walk the walk
The way an organisation’s leaders lead is the glue that holds transformational change together. Whether it’s the CEO or the change sponsor, leaders need to be role models for new ways of working, right from the start. Their influence will flow through the organisation so that people at all levels can see that their leaders do more than talk the talk.

Change small things
Mind-sets and behaviours are an essential part of enabling and embedding change. Work out what drives people’s work habits and daily decisions. With that understanding you can help people experience change and develop new habits. One way of doing that is to get people to complete a series of daily challenges.

Make it easy to say yes
Pretty much everyone has a basic drive to be happy and do a good job at work. Make it easy for people to say ‘yes’ to something new. Clarify how their work will change. Encourage behaviours that play to their strengths and provide a safe environment (with coaching support and rewards for effort) where they can step out of their comfort zones and try new things.

Contact the author

Contact the Transformation team

Rachael Brassey

Rachael Brassey

James Turnbull

James Turnbull