Change Leadership: Why is Change So Hard, Even When You Want to?

Quite a few years ago, I was hitting golf balls with my 5-iron, when Kelly, my golf instructor, asked “Larry, what do you want to get out of your lesson today?” I told him of my frustration of hitting a short 150 yard slice (ugly) and I want to hit a 175 yard shot with a slight draw (beautiful!). After hitting a few balls, Kelly showed me a “strong grip” – which is not about how firm to hold the club, but rather the location of the hands on the club.

I tried hitting the ball using this new grip, and I swear, I could hardly get the club face on the ball. After a number of tries, I turned and looked at Kelly and said in frustration, “Kelly, I can’t hit the ball this way. It just feels too strange. Let me go back to my old grip and show me something else!”

I will never forget the look on Kelly’s face. He said, “But Larry, it is SUPPOSED TO FEEL STRANGE! If it doesn’t feel strange, then there is no change, and if you don’t change, you will never hit a 5-iron 175 yards with a slight draw!”

What a lesson! Yes, I can still hit that shot, but that’s really not the point. The biggest lesson for me was, how change can be so difficult, even when I wanted to result of the change! Here I was, a relatively inexperienced golfer, wanting to become a much better golfer, and yet, making the change was so challenging.

Why is Change Hard? Cognitive Bias

Haven’t you ever wondered why it is that change can be so difficult, hard, upsetting, takes a long time, challenging – even when the business case for the change is so promising? These are but a few of the many descriptions that any of us have experienced when going through some change. Whether it’s landing a new client, going to a new job, changing strategic direction, learning a new software program, acquiring or being acquired, or combining corporate entities – all are ripe with changes, some small and some big.

We can look to the decades-long studies of Cognitive Bias to help shed some light on possible answers to this question: Why is change hard?

Cognitive bias can be loosely defined as a systematic, automatic pattern of observing or evaluating things around us, and from this, draw conclusions, make decisions, and behave in ways consistent with these biases. Part of what it is to be a human being includes cognitive bias.

In fact, when you really study different biases that we all have, it is obvious that cognitive bias is a way of describing the way our brains work, and have been working for generations, which allowed our species to survive. Many cognitive biases are so automatic that they don’t seem like a bias at all.

For example, if you look at the following illustration, what do you see?


Is your answer: A box? A square? 9 random dots?

We generally would not see “9 random dots”, although technically that is exactly what is shown. We can’t help but see a box, or a square, or some pattern. So one type of cognitive bias – we look for patterns in things. In the illustration above, try NOT to see a pattern.

3 Types of Cognitive Bias

Here are a 3 types of possible cognitive biases that could explain why change can be so difficult, even when we WANT to change:

Congruence Bias

Congruence Bias is the tendency to test hypotheses exclusively through direct testing, instead of testing possible alternative hypotheses (indirect). The classic example was discovered by Peter Wason who presented subjects with a number sequence “2, 4, 6”, telling the subjects that the sequence followed a particular rule and instructing them to use logic to find the sequence logic.

  • When asked for their answer, they responded with “ascending by + 2”.
  • When told they were wrong, they then guessed “the previous two numbers summed equals the next number”, which was also incorrect.
  • Most participants felt much stress and confusion by the test although the answer was simply “a group of numbers that are ascending”.

We often will jump to a conclusion especially if we perceive a pattern. Thus, instead of a subject testing to see if saying “5” was the wrong answer (thus proving their theory) they instead decided to test numbers they thought would be true.

Loss Aversion Bias

This is the natural tendency for humans to value avoiding loss much higher than the risk of potential, even if that potential gain far outweighs the potential loss. Studies have shown that the pain of a loss is almost twice as strong as the reward felt from a gain.

Status Quo Bias

This is an emotional bias; a preference for the current state of affairs. The current baseline (or status quo) is taken as a reference point, and any change from that baseline is perceived as a loss no matter how irrational.

So you can imagine that when someone has done something the same way for a long time, and they have been rewarded for delivering a given result as a consequence of that, trying to change could be very challenging. After all, they are losing the tried and true way of getting something done. And losing their status quo way is more painful than the potential of some gain based on changing.

The Real Problem and What is Required

Now for the alarming part. Yes, we can hypothesize why change can be so challenging. And we can describe behaviors and actions, and justify it because of what we know about change. But this is woefully insufficient in MOST major change initiatives, due to enormous consequences from error (energy industry as an example).

We see little evidence of cognitive bias being acted on in many industries, including the energy industry. What we see are engineering approaches designed to control cognitive biases through tight processes and technology – and these approaches do not work. If you visit company training centers you will see impressive programs and technologies, but little to no awareness of cognitive factors. If you speak to energy executives about cognitive biases you will likely hear some version of “we are attempting to engineer it out via processes and training”. Cognitive bias is NOT controlled by process nor eliminated by training.

What is required is changing people’s actions and collaboration between people… change leadership. This uses the creativity and resourcefulness of people to learn and to be engaged. Action requires strong leadership commitment – really transformational leadership – given very fundamental contexts and cognitive biases will be challenged.

Our approach at KingChapman is to recognize these challenges in any change scenario, and to provide the guidance and direction to transformational leadership as a successful way of making these changes.



Half of M&A transactions fail to create value. Ever wonder why? Download our whitepaper ‘The Conundrum of People in M&A’, and understand the critical elements that impact mergers and acquisitions success or failure.

In it, you will learn:

  • Eight common flaws in decision-making often made by executives in M&A transactions
  • Why the integration process is so critical
  • Tactics in organizing, planning, and communicating that lead to successful integrations

Error: Contact form not found.

Read More

Leadership Team Development When ‘Not a Strategic Bone in the Body’

This colorful phrase came from a CEO. I don’t know if he invented it or borrowed it from someone else. I worked with this new CEO to create new strategies for several of the large businesses in his portfolio. This CEO had been promoted up from one of the business units and had little experience with the other larger business units. These businesses were in the down part of the cycle, which created a challenging period for his company. Our challenge was to learn as much as we could, as quickly as possible to support the business unit executives in dramatically improving their businesses. We spent endless hours in strategic review sessions as well as a lot of time on the airplane moving between locations. Often at the end of a grueling day of leadership team development and business review, we would pile onto the plane to reflect on the day. It was at this time the assessment “not a strategic bone in the body” could be used when describing the management team.

It’s wasn’t that these executives were not intelligent – they were. Nor was it that they didn’t know their businesses – they did. Unfortunately though, all they knew was the operational side of the business. For quite some time there had been a lack of organizational accountability for strategic thinking. Consequently, these executives did not recognize that operations and strategy were different. They were “out of balance”, in that they were strong on operations and weak on strategy. The lack of balance between operations and strategy was an issue for the previous CEO, which was part of the reason my client was hired to replace him. This body was in definite need of leadership team development, particularly in the area of strategic thinking.

These executives could go into great detail with operational data. They knew their “facts and figures”. What they were missing was strategic thinking about what the data indicated, as well as the strategic factors that were influencing the data. They knew that the level of housing starts in the US was lower and that was affecting their business. Little thought had been given, however, to what was causing the slowdown in housing starts and how these reasons might affect future market levels. Instead, there was the assumption that the market for their products would come back and they would be ready when it did. In fact, they had invented a term to describe their positioning: “Profit Ready”. Unfortunately, “Profit Ready” was based on assumptions that the market would come back just as it was before the downturn. It also provided excuses for not thinking strategically about changes that could be made, as well as risks that could be mitigated.

The Challenge

As a consultant working with this executive team, one of the challenges I faced was assuring we did not fall into scapegoating these various executives. While it was frustrating to sit in sessions with these highly-compensated executives and observe their limitation as strategic thinkers, I kept reminding myself and our team that these executives were the product of the organizational culture.

Our task was to create a breakthrough design for rapidly developing executives into business strategists. We began by communicating the need for strategic thinking and assisting the executives who were willing to develop as quickly as possible. Learning to becoming a strategist while in an executive role is a major challenge, akin to learning to downhill ski or play golf as an adult. While observing children learning those sports is thrilling, the same cannot be said of watching adults do the same.

The Interventions

Teaching an executive to be a strategist requires the following actions:

  • Stop the charade. At first some of the executives were in denial and would push back. This pushback was usually in hopes that the new CEO would back off. The CEO, however, was direct and forceful about ending the pretense. For some of the executives, the road ended here. They were unable or unwilling to acknowledge the situation, and made no further development.
  • Acknowledge difference between operations and strategies. Both are important, just different. The executives could delegate most of the operational focus to others in the organization, and focus on strategic thinking. The pivotal first step was recognizing the distinction between the two.
  • Acknowledge difference between leaders and managers. Again, both are important, just different. The executives were highly trained as managers, and were good at it. While the term leadership was used widely in these businesses, there was little understanding of what it is. These businesses were classic examples of what John Kotter calls “Over-managed and Under-led.”
  • Value the attributes and behaviors of strategic thinking. The culture needed to be transformed. The important strategic behaviors of inquiry, continuing to question rather than moving to a conclusion, and allowing ambiguity to persist are the opposite of desired behaviors in an operational context. Attitudes and behaviors which are rewarded in the strategic arena are likely punished in operational areas.
  • Encourage thinking about the future rather than the past. Effective strategies deal with the future and do not assume the future is a continuation of the past. These executives had assumed their forecasting based on past performance was strategic thinking. That is flawed thinking.
  • Stop relying on ‘knowing’ as the future is not known. Since the future has not happened, it cannot be known. This is quite frustrating to managers with engineering and technical backgrounds. Their training and skill set comes from facts and knowing. Yet facts and knowing are rooted in the past. Overuse of facts and knowing inadvertently pulls the mind back into the past, and seriously limits the capacity to think strategically.
  • Enable freedom to fail. Thinking strategically involves creativity, innovation, and experimentation. Excessive concern about “looking good” and getting the right answer is very constraining. Failure is a valuable source of learning and knowledge. Attempting to avoid failure or hiding it when it happens is detrimental to thinking strategically.
  • Instill courage to step out and try something new. Like dancing and singing, thinking strategically can be exhilarating once the person gets over the initial concerns and timidity. In dancing, sometimes the best thing to do is get out on the floor and let go of being self-conscious.

Most of us were born without strategic bones in our bodies. We learn through great effort and over time through trial and effort. Strategic thinking is a must for organizations today who are dealing with ever increasing complexity and challenges. Organizations must also attend to developing capability for thinking strategically, and not confuse excellence in management with leadership and strategic thinking.


How is the level of strategic thinking in your organization? What are you doing to increase it? Where have you inadvertently delegated it to someone else with hope they would do it for you? What actions can you take right away to change that. Answers to these questions and more can be found in our whitepaper: ‘Successful Strategic Execution Begins With Leaders’.

In it, you will learn:

  • The two hallmarks of an effective leader
  • The most crucial value for leaders to possess
  • The greatest contribution a leader provides
  • The most valuable ‘tool’ for a leader to wield

Error: Contact form not found.

Read More

Leadership Commitment to Charters Key to Transformational Change

There is an ever-increasing demand today for transformational leaders. The rapid evolution of disruptive business models and technologies combined with intense global competition is producing this demand. The need for transformational change leaders who can use breakthrough designs to create sustainable growth strategies and execute transformational change is much larger than the supply. This has created a “gap” inside many organizations which requires leadership commitment to fill. Boards of Directors and executives are looking for ways to develop transformational change leaders within their companies like never before.

We at KingChapman have demonstrated methods for rapidly developing transformational leaders at many levels of an organization. We find that the best approach to developing these leaders combines creating and leading a Breakthrough Project in their organization with active participation in courses on Transformational Leadership. The act of creating the Charter for the Breakthrough Project is often the pivotal moment, both in forming the project and in participation in the leadership course.

Change Leaders vs. Change Managers

Most companies have change managers, who have been trained in using change management techniques. John Kotter says that the basic design of change management to control change initiatives. Change leadership is designed to create fundamental changes, which produce extraordinary results and transforms organizational culture. Change management methods are appropriate for incremental changes in one function or group in which the primary concern is maintaining control and stability. Change management methods are not appropriate for the bolder, bigger changes which many organizations today must implement, whether they are ready or not. The training and tools in change management were simply not designed for use in transformational change. The lack of appreciation for the differences in change leadership and change management is a key factor in the high failure rate of strategic execution and organizational transformations projects.

Change Leaders have quite different skill sets, which are designed to accelerate organizational accountability while implementing projects based on breakthrough designs. These actions produce extraordinary business results, intense employee engagement and transforms the organizational culture. Developing change leaders is a huge challenge facing companies today. The exponential expansion and growth of organizations has contributed to this. This growth has seemingly taken place so quickly that it has surpassed the organization’s ability to look within its ranks and develop potential leaders from within as the organization grows.

Charters & Developing Transformational Change Leadership

We believe the best approach for accelerated leadership development is the blend of active leadership of a breakthrough project with course work on leadership in organizational transformation. This blend makes the experience powerful, as the person learns what is required to create breakthroughs inside her or his company. An important building block in learning to lead transformation is the creation of a Charter for breakthrough projects, which is used as part of the coursework and leadership development. The Charter creates the breakthrough project(s). The Charter is written from the perspective of a future in which extraordinary results have been achieved. Success in accomplishing these results is the foundation of the Charter. The Charter articulates what shall be, and is comprised of a statement of purpose, outcomes, scope, constraints, key people, key processes and milestones.

Let’s look at how Charters play an important role in what we consider to be the six components of transformational leadership:

  1. Personal commitment to be a transformational change leader – Being a leader in transformational change is challenging, hard work. The process of creating the Charter for the transformation bring additional clarity to the leader regarding her/his personal commitment. This is important since personal commitment is the bedrock for organizational transformation. When the change leader’s commitments are clearly expressed, it provides a platform for dealing with the predictable complaints, criticism, and negative reactions from colleagues and others in the organization. The leader’s personal commitments must be bigger than the resistance if transformation is to be achieved
  2. Creating a Compelling Future – Transformational Leaders invent a compelling future which will replace the existing default future, since the default future is based in the past. Success in transformational change requires a new, future which is compelling and will inspire the creative energy of many in the organization. A well written Charter usually takes multiple iterations. Each interaction brings clarity on a future which is invented, rather than extension of the past. Often the initial attempts at crafting a compelling future fall into dealing with issues and problems from the past, rather than the future.
  3. Setting aspirational goals and strategies based on the compelling future – Once a future is established, then the strategic thinking required to envision breakthrough projects is possible. Leaders establish aspirational goals which can be seen to emanate from the Invented Future. These goals, if attained, will indicate success in achieving the Invented Future. Even better, these aspirational goals inspire people to seek breakthroughs and transformation. From this point, developing the Charter is readily done.
  4. Execution of strategies – They create a strong sense of urgency and engage a core of leaders in execution of initiatives which engages large numbers of employees in breakthrough and organizational transformation.
  5. Engaging hearts and minds during execution – Transforming organizations depends on winning the hearts and minds of employees and other stakeholders. Winning the hearts is often based on articulating values which are the basis for transformation. In addition, transformational change leaders act in ways which infuses the organizations values into heart of the culture. The values guide decisions and actions. The culture continues to evolve in ways which supports agility, creativity, continuous improvement and extraordinary products and services for customers
  6. Inspiration followed by more inspiration – There will be failures, let downs and mistakes along the way, which are essential for success in transformation. Maintaining focus and sustaining momentum toward completing the transformational changes required ongoing inspiration of people throughout the organization.

Charters are an important tool for change leaders engaged in strategic execution and organizational transformation. Developing Charters assists leaders in clarifying strategic thinking and establishing breakthrough projects as the core of strategic execution. When this practical experience is combined with coursework on organizational transformation, rapid development of change leaders occurs.


Is your organization seeking ways to rapidly develop change leaders? Using Charters to create breakthrough projects is an excellent tool in an overall leadership development effort. 

Leadership experiments can lead to breakthroughs in your organization. To learn how to plan breakthrough projects, download our white paper “7 Elements for Chartering a Breakthrough Project”.

In it you will learn:

  • what a ‘Breakthrough Project’ is and why it’s critical to organizational transformation
  • why creating a ‘charter’ is a critical step in the process
  • the critical roles that key people must play in the project to enhance success

Error: Contact form not found.

Read More

Show Leadership Accountability in Strategic Execution Initiatives

One might think that the leadership in strategic execution is obvious and straight forward. For example, the role of leaders is to guide the organization in executing its strategies and achieving expected results. This seems so obvious. My mom often used the phrase, “It’s as obvious as the nose on your face” to describe things such as this. While this role of leaders seems evident, in practice it often does not work out that way. The research on the effectiveness of strategic execution initiatives finds that more than half do not deliver the results. In fact, some estimate the failure rate to be between 66% and 85%.

How come? Clearly, leadership is not getting the job done.

Donald Sull gives a common explanation used by leaders in this situation, “We had a good strategy, but lousy execution”. Sull calls this a “cop-out”, and goes on to assert that the problems begin with the strategies which were likely too complicated and not designed with execution in mind. I strongly agree with Don Sull on this point. Further, I assert that the dynamic begins with leadership accountability.

Let’s look at some examples.

Be a Strategic Thinker and Do Not Delegate

A common assumption is that most executives excel as strategic thinkers. I find that most executives excel as operational thinkers. By and large executives have outstanding knowledge about the financial and operational aspects of their business. They are usually hyper busy dealing with a myriad of operational issues. Many executives, however, are not particularly skilled in thinking strategically. You might ask, “But what about all the time which is spent developing the business strategies?” If you look closely you will see the focus is on operations, with an implicit assumption that the business in the future will look remarkably similar to how it has looked in the past. This explains why so many businesses are caught flat-footed when their markets change dramatically or disruptive technologies and innovative business models interrupt their industry.

I have observed that many executives outsource the strategic thinking by delegating staff work to others in the organization and / or dependending on external organizations. There is a subtle difference in engaging others to support framing the strategic questions and outsourcing the strategic thinking. Having groups in the company do staff work to develop data and knowledge is excellent practice, as is engaging external experts. The difference is in maintaining accountability for the thinking. When the executive has maintained organizational accountability for strategic thinking, there is a stimulating environment in which the internal and external parties can collaborate in powerful ways. If the executive does not maintain the organizational accountability for strategic thinking, a very different mood develops. Unease increases as this accountability and power vacuum becomes apparent. Ambitious individuals and organizations see the opportunity to grab power, and the positioning begins. The soap opera unfolds over time as the execution plans are developed and implemented. Of course, this dramatically increases the probability that the strategic execution will be flawed and ultimately fail.

Must Lead Change

Successful change does not happen simply because we wish it would. We cannot will it into existence. Nor can executives delegate the accountability for leading change. Instead, they must create organizational structures that empower accountability to assure the changes move through the predictable opposition and resistance. Leading change requires creating a vision for the change, establishing a strong sense of urgency for why change is needed, engaging a core of leaders, communicating powerfully, creating the right climate for change, coordinating activities, engaging stakeholders, maintaining momentum, dealing with surprises, and removing roadblocks. Executives must exercise the internal leadership needed to propel strategy information forward.

Often the group which requires the most attention from executives is middle management and supervisors. Most of these people have achieved their position and status in the company through their effectiveness in maintaining control. Strategic execution initiatives often alters these control structures, since this interruption is needed to promote growth. In the role of change leaders, executives need to pay attention to these middle managers and supervisors. Supporting these managers in making the changes will trigger a huge difference, as ultimately the change leader wants these managers to be effectively engaging others in the organization in making the changes. In organizations with hierarchical, top down management orientation, it is common for managers and supervisors to attempt to implement change through domination rather than enrollment. Needless to say, domination as a change method has very limited success.

Provide Credibility with Stakeholders

Strategic execution initiatives are an opportunity in which executives will enhance or lose credibility with the various stakeholders. Stakeholders is a term used to describe the various groups or individuals who believe they have “something at stake” in the behavior and success of an organization. Usually, there are a wide variety of stakeholders such as employees, customers, suppliers, investors, retirees, community leaders, politicians, and governmental officials. When the strategy being executed involves meaningful change, the various stakeholders will likely have differing opinions about the changes. How the executives provide leadership will determine whether they enhance or lose credibility with the various stakeholder groups.

Display Competence and Confidence

Growth companies require a lot of competence and confidence. This is why the caliber of leadership from top executives during strategy execution is so important. This includes leadership in strategic thinking and developing others as strategic thinkers. This involves eschewing conventional thinking, not for the sake of nonconformity, but because they are focused on the fundamental questions about the company’s strategies. These fundamental questions include how we can best execute our strategies.


Successful strategic execution initiatives require leadership from executives. They cannot be over-managed and under-led. Ultimately, change is needed by mid-level managers and supervisors to champion the execution rather than focus on controlling people. Success in engaging the various groups of stakeholders will enhance leadership’s credibility, as well as enhance support for the strategies being executed.

Leadership of strategic execution cannot be abrogated through delegation to others. It must be taken up by those in the positions to do so. This leadership accountability is essential for success.


If you want to learn more about what characteristics and roles leadership plays in the success of any organization, download our whitepaper: ‘Successful Strategic Execution Begins With Leaders’.

In it, you will learn:

  • The two hallmarks of an effective leader
  • The most crucial value for leaders to possess
  • The greatest contribution a leader provides
  • The most valuable ‘tool’ for a leader to wield

Error: Contact form not found.

Read More