Where to start when leading change? Top, Bottom, or Middle of the Organization? (PART ONE)

By Sharon Turnbull – Cycle Director IMPM


This is the first in a two part series examining leading change and where to start the process. I will begin by examining when it makes sense to lead from the top and when it is not appropriate.

I am often asked to help clients to design their organisational change programmes. A common question is ‘Where shall we start? At the top, the bottom, or in the middle of the organisation?

There is no easy answer to this question, and each approach has its own merits depending on the nature and context of the change. These challenges are the questions that you may face in your company.  In the IMPM, the International Masters Program for Managers that I direct, senior executives grapple with these very questions.  By sharing their experiences on how they manage different change scenarios they help each other with possible approaches within their organizations and teams.

In this blog I will take a look at each of these strategies and offer some thoughts on each one. 

In the past, most companies were designed as hierarchical pyramid-shaped organisations in which the responsibility for policy and strategy was clearly found at the top – in the Boardroom.  In such organisations, there was clarity of roles and a clear demarcation between top level decision-makers, middle level supervisors and lower level implementers. Today’s organisations are of course often much flatter, but despite this shift, when it comes to leading change they often act as though they were still steep hierarchies. And when faced with the need to lead change, leaders often feel less comfortable devolving responsibility down into the organisation than they are in times of continuity.

In this blog I will take a look at some of the options for kicking off a change programme, and the advantages and disadvantages of each strategy.

When would it make sense to lead change from the top?

Here are some scenarios when this might make sense.

  1. You are facing an urgent crisis that needs an immediate decision and clear, directive leadership in order to avert catastrophe. There are times when consultation and devolved decision making is much too slow, and when the whole organisation is looking for a clear steer from its leader or leadership team to move it out of danger. When faced with such a precipice, followers in the organisation need clarity of both purpose and action, and will look to its top leaders for this direction.
  2. As a newly appointed leader you may wish to take symbolic action in order to signify a change of direction. At these times a top down change of direction can sometimes be appropriate, especially if you are taking over a situation where there has been either weak leadership, or where there is a general sense of organisational malaise. Organisations that have lost their sense of direction and purpose might sometimes need a greater sense of being led from the top through such symbolic action in order to restore lost confidence. However, even when the situation leads you to decide that it needs an initial top down push toward a clearly articulated change of direction, it will take wise leadership to determine at what point to pull back and devolve decision making once again.
  3. If the organisation does not yet have the skills and capabilities required to devolve responsibility for change leadership to lower levels of the organisation the leader might need to go for top down change until such capacity is developed in the organisation. Developing a culture of distributed leadership where leadership is enacted at every level can take time and effort.

When would top down change be inappropriate?

  1. Top down change is not likely to be an appropriate strategy for change in situations that require you to harness the creativity and ideas of your workforce.  If your downward communications are too strong, they may stifle ideas that could otherwise rise up from below.
  2. Top down change may also be inappropriate for organisations that are structurally decentralised. Project, matrix and other complex organisations are often designed to enable multiple agendas, cultures and strategies to flourish under one organisation. Even when a crisis makes it tempting to drive change from the top, the sudden desire to take back control at the top of the organisation, unless very well communicated can cause resistance, discontent and rebellion, and may fail to unify such an organisation.


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