Book Excerpt: Leading Successful Change

Eight Keys to Making Change Work

by Gregory P. Shea and Cassie A. Solomon


Following is an excerpt from Leading Successful Change: 8 Keys to Making Change Work, by Gregory P. Shea and Cassie A. Solomon (Wharton Digital Press, 2013). For more information on the book, visit

Why do so many attempts at organizational change fall short? Certainly not for lack of advice. In fact, there is an entire industry based on exploring this subject, one that touts an array of approaches: tell stories, make change a priority, “walk the talk,” and ponder parables about mice and cheese or penguins and icebergs. Many of the most popular books on change address its psychological aspects, and focus on people and their internal states or motivations—and they address both well. These ideas matter and can prove most useful. This psychological perspective taken alone, however, can promote the belief that the success or failure of any given organizational change effort comes down to motivating individual members of the organization and that, correspondingly, a leader’s primary job comes down to inspiring the troops. Such a belief can easily lead to unfortunate attributions whenever individuals don’t change, namely marking individuals as the problem. The person receives the label “resistant,” and perhaps the leader becomes stigmatized as “uninspiring.” We contend that altering the attribution and recasting the challenge of resistance significantly improve the likelihood of success.

Nor is failed change necessarily a problem of lack of commitment. You may have led a failed change, whether big or small, even after doing so much right: You did your discovery work. You scanned your world. You developed a sense of urgency. You physically felt the need to change. You made the case (over and over), delineated a strategy, and lined up the powers that be. Yet the change did not happen. It remained uncoupled from the day-to-day operation of the organization, both in design and in execution. The change turned into a shadow of itself or even less and then slipped away, leaving remnants, lost credibility, and numerous casualties. So, just what was the problem? What should you have done differently? What do you need to do differently next time?
We contend that change efforts often fail for two reasons:

1. Leaders present vague and abstract change objectives: “Improve communication between caregivers and patients and their families” or “Increase profitability.” Phrases like these mean different things to different people. They do not specify what to do or how to change. They do not focus on the key aspect of organizational change: the required behavior of individuals.
2. Leaders underestimate the power of the work environment to precipitate or stall change. Many change efforts lack a coordinated or aligned approach to designing the work environment. One aspect of the environment tells people to make a change, while other aspects of the environment signal to people to continue to act as they always have.

Changing organizations comes down to changing human behavior. Design of the work environment or system design, in turn, drives human behavior in complex entities such as organizations. One might well argue that human organizations are systems of systems. To change them requires less magical imagery and Herculean effort and more careful consideration of just what a leader seeks to create with change and how to align the corporate or business unit or department work environment to produce that desired, even longed-for change. To increase the odds of successful change, increase the discipline of thought, planning, and execution, beginning with clarity of what behavior the leader wants and the system changes necessary to produce it. Leading Successful Change identifies 8 aspects of the work environment or system and how to leverage them in leading change.

Therefore, to create successful change, always remember these two tenets:

1. Focus on the behaviors you want from people.
2. Design the work environment to foster those behaviors.

The times are not just a-changin’. Our era is dominated by the reality that change is constant. We all need to get better at it—and sooner rather than later. You owe yourself and the people depending upon your leadership no less. We offer you this book in that spirit.

Gregory P. Shea, PhD, and Cassie A. Solomon are the authors of Leading Successful Change: 8 Keys to Making Change Work. They have both taught within various capacities at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania on the subject of change management. Shea, an adjunct professor, faculty associate of the Center for Leadership and Change Management, and 30-year veteran of the Wharton faculty, teaches at the School’s Aresty Institute of Executive Education, with longstanding service as a director of both the Leadership Journey and Leading Organizational Change programs. He is president of Shea and Associates, Inc., a senior consultant at CFAR, and a principal in the Coxe Group. Solomon has taught in the Aresty program and The Leonard David Institute of Health Economics. Solomon spent 16 years with CFAR where she was the director of the Hospitals and Health Systems practice. She is the president and founder of The New Group Consulting, creator of RACI Training, and is also an affiliate of the Coxe Group.