The 5 principles of strategic change
Change is inevitable. You prepare for change and change
happens to you. You prepare to change and you change your thought
patterns, emotions and/or behavior. Change is hard, so resistance
is common. Instead of preparing for change themselves, many people
analyze the behavior of others. Eventually, some will understand
the connection between their behavior and a current problem,
including the behavior of others, and begin to wonder how to change
their thinking and actions.
After recently delivering a lecture and workshop on career
advancement strategies to students at the University of Maryland
Law School, who had read Power and Influence for Lawyers
and were looking to apply theory to practice, I began thinking
about how their needs were similar to the needs of my clients, who
- Expanding their firm's market share of legal work.
- Expanding their market share and client base.
- Transitioning mid-career to a different role or industry.
- Developing a culturally competent and inclusive culture.
- Streamlining work processes for maximum efficiency and
- Expanding their association's membership numbers and
- Transitioning from organizational founders to the next
generation of leaders and business owners.
- Learning to give effective feedback to others to change their
- Transitioning a group of people into effective and efficient
client service and business development teams.
Change is easier with an understanding of the five principles of
strategic change. Effective change strategies are built on these
truths. Ahead, you will read about the five principles of strategic
change and strategies for transformative and positive change.
Principle #1: Change is hard and filled with
Change is hard and filled with discomfort because of the loss of
familiar routines and the challenge of learning new skills. Most
people resist change and instead implement ideas stemming from the
comfort of familiar ways of doing things. A law school with a
declining applicant pool, following years of rising unemployment or
underemployment numbers for its graduates, adds new law practice
management courses without changing its business model. A job
hunter has received few interviews and submits more applications
without changing where to look for job openings, the types of jobs
considered, or the content of a resume and cover letter. A group of
leaders that cannot reach a decision on a growth strategy for the
organization hires a consulting firm to develop a strategy instead
of addressing the group's inability to have productive
conversations that lead to implementable decisions.
Intentional change generally begins with a jolt of significant
discomfort. A person's worldview is shaken when, after 20 years in
the same organization, the person is asked to find a new position.
A manager's subordinates are not delivering the expected value to
the business and new business opportunities are lost. A law school
is no longer able to show the return on investment to prospective
students. The difference between the revenue generated by an
organization and the cost to run becomes intolerable.
Confusion, denial of problems or mild annoyance with a current
situation doesn't spur intentional, transformative change. An acute
awareness of an extreme discomfort with a specific aspect of a
present situation causes one to want to escape the discomfort.
Ironically, transformative change brings its own extreme
discomfort. Replacing the familiar, old ways of doing things with
new thinking and skills is associated with feelings of loss and
incompetence. Consequently, change efforts are often block with
self-created obstacles, like an inability to articulate goals or
certainty that a problem is outside of one's power or
Intentional change follows feelings of significant discomfort, a
vision of a better future and an idea of what to do and how to do
it to start moving forward. Address obstacles with this process in
- Develop the belief that the discomfort with the present far
outweighs the discomfort with change. Make a list of consequences
attached to the status quo or a new changed situation.
- Develop a clear vision of a better future, which provides
direction and heightens one's ability to notice opportunities;
i.e., what to do, abilities and how to do it. Sufficient discomfort
builds a desire to escape, but without direction of where to aim or
what to do.
- When a vision is blocked from view, it is usually because good,
fresh data is missing. Replace stale data with new data through
exposure to new experiences, places, people and ideas.
- Confidence in one's skill level may be missing. If so, add in
skill development and training.
Principle #2: Monitor feelings, thoughts and
Specific feelings, thoughts and behavior attached to specific
points in the change process. Identifying the present feelings,
thoughts and behavior to learn where you are in the change process
what to do to move forward.
Early stage: Feelings of loss, sadness and frustration are common
in early stages. Acknowledge and validate any and all feelings.
Critical thinking is often overwhelmed with confusion about the
meaning of things and an internal dialogue about being stuck in a
situation beyond one's control or influence. Paralysis replaces
action. Learning to distinguish between assumptions and data is an
important skill. In the August issue of this publication, I wrote
about the tendency to run up the ladder of inference when facing
change and how to climb back down.
Nudge forward moving at this stage in several ways. Talk about the
current problems and build sufficient discomfort to create a desire
to escape the discomfort. Add detail to a vision of a better future
to make it more alluring. Acknowledge and validate feelings of
anxiety, confusion and sadness as normal. People experience change
as a loss and think of loss as dangerous and something to be
Mid stage: Feelings change to discomfort, anger and desire. They
spur new thoughts and action. Confusion is replaced with curiosity
that leads to a deeper understanding about the present reality and
noticing internal strengths and external opportunities to
incorporate into a strategy. The internal dialogue about being
stuck begins to dissipate.
Nudge forward movement by generating DRAC
statements, which emphasize: (1) a Desire for
change and to learn and master the necessary skills to transform a
future vision into a present reality; (2) the
Reasons to do whatever necessary; (3) the
Ability to learn new skills and tolerate
unpleasant feelings; and (4) a Commitment to stick
with the process. Toward the end of this stage, new behaviors
become apparent and initial goals are attained. Progress is
Late stage: New behaviors lead to new ways of thinking and feeling.
What was new becomes more familiar and comfortable. Feelings of
calm, accomplishment and comfort replace discomfort and anger. The
desire to accomplish more leads to an even stronger willingness and
desire to learn and practice new behaviors. An objective awareness
of present reality and acceptance of one's true strengths and
weaknesses strengthens the belief, ability and commitment to do
whatever is necessary to continue moving forward. A feedback loop
is created whereby small accomplishments nudge more positive action
for bigger accomplishments until significant goals are attained and
the vision of a better future becomes the reality. Nudging forward
movement is not necessary. Instead learning how to maintain balance
A few examples follow. A change in thinking about relative status
of different positions sparked a successful mid-career transition
for a law partner at a large firm. Replacing judgments of fault and
speculation of cause of unacceptable subordinate behavior with
practice in giving effective performance feedback improved the
management skills of a boss and performance of a subordinate. At
the intersection of the market's need for legal services, the
expertise needed for law students to become lawyers able to meet
that need, and the training opportunities for law students is a new
business model for law schools with shrinking applicant
Principle #3: Change initiatives are strategic
Specific, intentional change is an outcome of a well-planned and
executed strategy, an iterative 10-step process that begins with
developing a clear understanding of individual, group, or
organizational values and identity. The steps are:
- Values and Identity - What are they?
- Vision - Develop one.
- Goals - Create a list of S*M*A*R*T goals.
- Scan for internal strengths and weaknesses - Identify your
- Scan for external opportunities and threats - Locate your
- Create a step-by-step action plan - Use your strengths to seize
- Implement the plan.
- Reflect on the outcomes, analyze mistakes and identify points
- Revise anything in steps 1-7 above.
Knowing who you are and what matters most to you helps when trying
to create a vision. A clear vision makes it easier to identify
SMART goals, which I define as
Actionable, Relevant to the
vision and Time-Bound, and nudges forward
movement. SMART goals inform the creation of action plans. After
implementation of a plan, reflect, revise and reiterate with an
attitude of resilience. All strategy skills, even resilience, can
be taught and learned, which is exactly what I teach my
Northeastern University students as they pursue advanced
Principle #4: Effectively leading requires strategic
Self talk and interpersonal communication are powerful methods of
intentionally precipitating or inadvertently freezing forward
movement in a change initiative. Strategic communication, the
ability to influence an intended outcome, is another learned skill.
Communication is a behavior, which changes thoughts, feelings and
Self-awareness of one's default communication tendencies and
practicing alternative behaviors is the only way to improve one's
communication skills. Consider attending workshops and engaging a
Principles #5: Context matters
Individuals, groups and organizations are open and complex systems
comprising (1) animate objects; (2) inanimate, tangible objects;
(3) intangible ideas, like location, space, time and hidden
assumptions and (4) processes as narrow delivering feedback or as
broad as social culture. Systems are the context in which change
Open means the system is continuously affecting and being affected
by other systems. In professional service organizations, the
constant interaction of the professionals among themselves and with
their clients affects the work processes and products much more
than customers affect the processes and products in a manufacturing
Complex means that outcomes often result from multiple drivers and
are often unpredictable. Small changes can lead to significant
outcomes. Never underestimate the enduring affect of an
organization's history and founders. I have worked with several law
firms trying to transition successfully from their historical
founders to a new generation of leaders and owners. The beliefs and
values of the founders are deeply rooted in the culture and can
create a significant obstacle to intentional change in one firm and
a fast track to a later change phase in another.
Frequently, change initiatives fall short of achieving their stated
goals because they fail to take into account one or more aspects of
the system. A law school that wants to stem the ebbing tide of
dropping enrollment neglects to address the problem that a large
percentage of their graduates over the past several years are
unemployed or underemployed for reasons other than not having been
taught the fundamentals of law practice management. A business that
wants to improve diversity at its highest levels of power and stem
the tide of partner defections doesn't address the bias in a
process that compensates rainmakers and service partners
differently. An individual trying to create personal change isn't
ready, willing or able to change his or her thinking or
Change is inevitable and hard. Expect resistance and plan to
address it. When you prepare for change and prepare to
change, forward movement is easier and faster.
Susan Letterman White, JD, MS (Organization Development),
is a strategic change consultant for clients in professional
service industries. Her work is designed to improve organizational,
group and individual performance, leadership, work-flow, diversity
and inclusion, communication and business development. Her projects
often include data collection and analysis, group facilitation,
mediation, training and coaching.