Module 8: Factors Affecting Organizational Capacity for Change - Leadership and Management

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Capable Champions

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Factors Affecting Organizational Capacity for Change

Leadership and Management

Capable Champions

What is a Capable Champion?

A capable champion is a middle manager who is able to influence others in the organization to adopt a proposed change without the formal authority to do so.

In a systematic study of change champions conducted, they found that these middle managers are different from the typical manager.

Clearly, organizations need to be both managed well and led effectively if they are to be successful over time. However, most organizations are overmanaged and underled, [2] and capable change champions are one of the best antidotes to this organizational imbalance:

“Senior executives can come up with the most brilliant strategy, but if the people who design products, talk to customers, and oversee operations don’t foster innovation in their own realms, none of that brilliance will make a whit of difference”. [3]

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While traditional managers always seek to make their numbers; change champions seek to satisfy customers and coworkers. Traditional managers hold others accountable; change champions hold everyone accountable, including themselves.

In addition, traditional managers are fearful of failure; change champions are not afraid of failure and understand that they have career options outside of this job.

In sum, traditional managers analyze, leverage, optimize, delegate, organize, and control with the basic mind-set that “I know best.” In contrast, change champions’ basic mind-set is to do it, fix it, change it, and that no one person knows best. [1]

Influence Without Authority

Change and innovation goes beyond existing organizational subunits, change champions need to go beyond their existing authority to get things changed.

To do this, they need power, which can be thought of as the capacity to mobilize resources and people to get things done.

And just as absolute power corrupts, absolute powerlessness on the part of change champions also corrupts in the sense that those who are more interested in turf protection than in the overall organization are not challenged to think and behave in a bigger fashion. [4]

It is very difficult for anyone to implement change without authority!

Getting Things Done When Not in Charge

Geoffrey Bellman, an organizational development consultant, states that in order to work effectively with other people over whom you have no authority, it is important to start out by being clear about what you want.

Specifically, he states, “Clarity about your vision of what you want increases the likelihood you will reach for it.” [5]

In essence, he argues for the power of an authentic life over the power of organizationally backed authority.

Rising Importance of Change Champions

Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom used a creative analogy from the animal kingdom to illustrate the rising importance of change champions within organizations.

They argued that future organizations will function more like starfish, and less like spiders. They state:

“If you chop off a spider’s head, it dies. If you take out the corporate headquarters, chances are you’ll kill the spider organization…Starfish don’t have a head to chop off. Its central body isn’t even in charge. In fact, the major organs are replicated through each and every arm. If you cut the starfish in half, you’ll be in for a surprise: the animal won’t die, and pretty soon you’ll have two starfish to deal with.” [6]

We will now examine a range of practices that will allow you to develop capable champions within your organization.

Practice 1: Hire, Develop, and Retain Change Agents

Many senior executives confine themselves to looking only one level down from the top and conclude incorrectly that there are not enough people to lead change initiatives. This approach signals that the senior leadership does not trust existing managers to champion change.

A much better approach is to hire potential change agents to help ensure the organization’s future.

This is why hiring decisions are better made by those who have led others to be superior to staff persons with no actual leadership experience or background.

An organization needs to utilize a change agent - senior executives leading changed is inefficient!

Practice 2: Listen to Middle Managers, Especially Those Who Deal With Customers

In the previous unit, it was emphasized that senior leaders need to dialogue with and listen to their employees. This is especially true of change agents within the middle management ranks.

Change agents have unique perspective on the entire organization as well as its customers. Senior leaders need two-way communication to tap this knowledge.

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For example, an organizational study of governmental agencies found that senior leaders of agencies that engaged in dialogue with the middle management ranks were much more successful in pursuing change than senior leaders of agencies that used a more top-down, one-way communication style.

Practice 3: Identify Who Your Change Champions Are

Usually effective middle managers are tremendous change champions.

A recent Harvard Business Review article offers insights on how to identify who the change champions might be: [7]

Look for early volunteers. These individuals often have the confidence to tackle the risky and ambiguous nature of change.

Look for positive critics. Positive critics challenge existing proposals, suggest alternatives, and provide evidence to support their argument.

Look for people with informal power. They are often middle managers whose advice is highly sought after by people all around them.

Look for individuals who are versatile. Change champions need to be able to adapt more easily than others in the organization.

Practice 4: Recognize and Reward Effective Change Champions

Organizations are designed to reduce variation; change champions are oriented to creating variation.

How can these two different orientations co-exist? Clearly, there needs to be a balance here. Unfortunately, most organizations only reward managers who reduce variation and punish or, more likely, ignore those who amplify variation.

Due to the messiness and uncertainty behind change, change champions are more likely to make mistakes, but they learn from their mistakes and they ultimately succeed.

Change Agents need to be rewarded for their mistakes that lead to change!

Practice 5: Train and Develop Middle Managers to Be Change Agents

Noel Tichy argues that effective companies build leaders at every level, and they do this by creating a “leadership engine.” This is especially true for the development of change champions.

In Tichy’s view, the best leaders are “enablers” rather than “doers.” They work their initiatives through other people rather than doing it all themselves

Organizations must look towards their middle managers, as they may already possess the skills necessary to become leaders of change.

Practice 6: Use Cross-Functional Teams to Bring About Change

Organization change requires cross-function teams to guide the change initiative.

Without a cross- functional team, unrepresented organizational units are more likely to resist the change since it is assumed that their voice is not heard or considered. Ideally, the cross-functional team will comprise respected change champions from the various subunits. At a minimum, the team must be led by a change champion.

Cross-functional teams are different from the more traditional functional team. They can speed new product development cycles, increase creative problem solving, serve as a forum for organizational learning, and be a single point of contact for key stakeholder groups.


[1] Katzenbach (1996). From middle manager to real change leader. Strategy and Leadership, 24(4), 32-35.

[2] Bennis and Nanus (1997). Leaders: Strategies for taking charge. New York, NY: Harper & Row.

[3] Kanter (2004), p. 150. The middle manager as innovator. Harvard Business Review, 84(4), 150-161.

[4] Kanter (2004), p. 153. The middle manager as innovator. Harvard Business Review, 84(4), 150-161.

[5] Bellman (2001). Getting things done when you are not in charge (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Press.

[6] Brafman and Beckstrom (2006). The starfish and the spider: The unstoppable power of leaderless organizations. New York, NY: Penguin.

[7] Huy (2001). In praise of middle managers. Harvard Business Review, 72-79.

[8] Tichy and Cohen (1997). The leadership engine. New York, NY: HarperBusiness.


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