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3 Steps to Lead Change from the Middle

You’re stuck in the middle. LITERALLY. As middle management you get the seemingly impossible task of not just managing those who report to you, but the delicate balance of working with other managers AND keeping your boss happy (which generally means keeping his/her boss happy).

So how do you keep both ends of the spectrum happy when you’ve been charged with implementing a new program for the department? Or even better, the entire organization? You can’t rely on authority because as middle management that’s limited. Now, in addition to the task itself, you have to figure out how to manage and seek collaboration up, down, and across the organization.

Organizational change is the test of leadership because failure is so often the outcome. Research shows that organizational change efforts either fail or do not yield the promised results 70 to 90 percent of the time. Leading organizational change is difficult, costly, and risky. Underlying many reasons for the failure of change initiatives is fear among employees of losing something valuable. Fear can cause the impacted community to resist and undermine organizational change.

In his book, Leading Change from the Middle: A Practical Guide to Building Extraordinary Capabilities, Jackson Nickerson, PhD, Associate Dean of Brookings Executive Education and professor at Olin Business School, Washington University in St. Louis, uses the CoSTS (communication, strategies, and tactics) model to demonstrate three key steps that will help you successfully lead organizational change on time and within budget. When applied in the appropriate sequence – as appropriate for each stakeholder category, the CoSTS model will help you engage & earn support from the necessary stakeholders and avoid emotional reactions from your stakeholders so they don’t turn into haters and derail your efforts.

STEP ONE: Identify your stakeholders

Initially you will want to include everyone, and you should. It’s better to whittle the list down later, than to leave someone off.

STEP TWO: Put your stakeholders in four categories:

  • Superordinates (your boss, boss’s boss, etc.),
  • Subordinates
  • Customers
  • Complementors & blockers (AKA haters).

STEP THREE: Apply the appropriate CoSTS:

  • Agree-in (Superordinates) – You will want to engage in conversation with your boss to fully grasp the task at hand and the political landscape you’re about to enter.
    • Establish timing & objectives
    • Evaluate the stakeholder landscape
    • Determine superordinate’s role & support
    • Determine resource support
    • Set schedule for ongoing communications
  • Bee-in (Subordinates) – In order to create support and commitment among subordinates you will need to engage and empower them throughout the process. According to Nickerson this is an essential step in the process for subordinates, “In my classes at Brookings Executive Education I tell my students that by following these steps the responsibility for developing an extraordinary capability will shift from you as an individual leader, to the collective comprised of you and your subordinates.”
    • Select the right team
    • Gain commitment from the team
    • Communicate the preliminary vision
    • Comprehensively formulate the challenge
    • Verify formulation before solving
    • Develop alternative solution approaches
    • Verify the solution approach before planning implementation
    • Design and execute implementation plan
  • Buy-in (Customers) – You will need to create enough perceived value for internal or external customers to encourage them to spend their time or money using or purchasing the services.
    • Invite customers to join the Bee-In process
    • Engage lead users and opinion leaders
    • Understand customer needs through anthropology
    • Market advertise the value of the new capability
  • Allow-in (Complementors/blockers) – Outline specific strategies geared at shaping perception and support of the project by demonstrating that it’s in their best interest to stop complementors from becoming blockers, convert blockers to complementors or avoid blockers all together.
    • Solicit Bee-In
    • Solicit Buy-In, engage in “gift exchange” (scratch my back & I’ll scratch yours)
    • Leverage agree-in (call in the big dogs)
    • Exclude (you can’t play anymore)

All of our organizations are different in some way shape or form. However, at the end of the day we all have one thing in common – people. Whether you’re implementing a new HR policy or new IT system, we all have to figure out the best route to success. CoSTS is a great resource for you on that journey.

Kimberly Hall is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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LaRel Rogers

Thanks for sharing these tips! While reading I was going to say, “I think step three is most definitely important,” then I continued reading and realized all of the steps are great and important! Team work makes the dream work and this blog helps decides the five w’s. Thanks again for sharing!