Leaders trigger change for various reasons – when new markets enter, diversification happens, higher levels of performance are needed due to competition, or a business is declining. There are many types of leaders in an organization, not just the CEO. Think of the C-Suite of business leaders, middle managers, and team leads. There are also free-roaming change agents – or transformation leads – that can appear at any level of an organization with primary accountability for making change happen. Sometimes, leaders need to change, but they can actually get in the way instead.

Here are some typical problems that can happen if a leader is in the way and how you can go about them.

When leaders frame change as risks, not opportunities

Companies launch programs and rally folks to a transformation but leaders get in the way when they underestimate the goals, desires, pains, fears, and careers that their people are managing. When everything is changing around you – the technology, ways of working, culture – the motivation for change can be unclear and many naturally resist. But progress is good for everyone’s career, everyone’s purpose in the organization, and the company’s future. Although it’s the leader’s job to frame it this way, every individual can help. Seek out your role in the change and how it will help you progress personally. Be the change you want to see.

Leaders act reactively and outsource change

It’s challenging for leadership when organizations fall behind and find themselves in reactive mode. The situation worsens if C-Suite leaders dictate that change needs to happen and then rely on their direct reports and their teams to execute the changes. Instead of leaving it to others as if they’re outsourcing the change, C-Suite leaders need to own it themselves. Sometimes they outsource because that’s the way it’s always been done. And sometimes being one step away from the outcome makes it somebody else’s problem. Leaders may lack experience and worry it won’t work, which could be career-limiting. But they can experience great success when they take accountability and make change happen. And so can you. Leaders must have courage and you can help by offering support, experimenting with ideas, suggesting improvements, and providing feedback on the change – both good and bad.

Change is treated as a one-off, Big Bang, transformation event

A change program is like the tide coming in. Water pushes forward and then something happens, like a change in leadership, then it retreats. Then it moves forward again but something else, like a new regulation, happens and the wave goes back. But ultimately, the tide is still coming in. Sometimes it does feel like it’s two steps forward, and one step back. It’s compounded by the volume of transformation efforts happening within single organizations. The counterpoint is that in any organization growing at the pace of the needs of its customers, change is always happening. The problem with many transformations is that they appear to have a starting and ending point. It’s hard to understand that there is no ‘done’. But you can accept there will be setbacks and treat failure as a learning opportunity. See your organization as an evolving organism – challenge your leaders when they treat change like a one-off event.

People aren’t invited by leaders to participate

Magic happens when leaders embody the change and there’s a groundswell of champions from all levels within the organization. Be a champion. Change demands that leaders adjust from a command-and-control leadership style to a transformational leadership style. The highest levels distribute authority and encourage lower levels to participate in change by empowering teams to make decisions. By doing so, organizations flatten and remove middle layers. We don’t want optimizers anymore – people that run reports and spreadsheets. We want servant leaders supporting teams in self-discovering their own improvements. Request that from your leaders. Insist on participating. Proactively explore your systems and dig for insights. Make decisions and tell your leaders what you’re about to act on and why. Teach yourself empowerment.

Teams don’t have systems that provide insights throughout the customer delivery lifecycle

Empowered and self-directed teams don’t make progress visible on their own. But you can’t see the progress in waterfall, either. In waterfall, middle managers had the illusion of control and visibility into what the organization was doing using gates, with users signing off on requirements. But in the agile world, it’s hard for managers that are used to the old way because most organizations haven’t invested enough in the underlying systems that enable management and optimization of their semi-chaotic environment.

Having a multidisciplinary team understand something from its incubation all the way through its delivery – as a value stream does – is the most effective way for an organization to continually create value. If they haven’t acquired Alignment, Work Management, DevOps toolchains, and CICD pipelines, then they can’t report on capacity, dependency management, and how their work relates to organizational goals. Leaders might think people seem happy, but they aren’t certain they’re delivering the right value for the effort they put in. Tell your leader how you feel and demand time to invest in systems and tooling to unlock outcomes and organizational-level agility. Show them you want to build it and own it – run your own product’s P&L.

Leaders fail to empower their teams to sense customer feedback and dependencies

Knowing that your work delivered the experience you hoped requires sensors as close to the customer as possible, which would be you. Leaders must give you access to actionable insights into your value stream’s data – how efficient and effective you are. Ask for this access. In DevOps, there’s a mantra, “don’t manage dependencies, break them.” When you have your value stream data, your dependencies become visible. An organizational map of dependencies is created so that you can work with your leaders and they can prioritize and break those dependencies for you.

Team leaders fall down when removing impediments and dependencies

Even when systems are under failure, we can still do something valuable. To accomplish this in complex systems, leaders must be adept at decoupling technologies and teams in order to be able to create value. Agile and DevOps emerged and help a lot here. Now, leaders must continually try to find and break every dependency that they can. You can help your leaders see the dependencies and impediments through your systems and tools. And you can help both your leaders and teammates see where impediments are going to impact your people, your performance, and your customer outcomes.

Jira Align can help

At Atlassian, we hear about these challenges all the time. With products, such as Jira Align and our Enterprise Agility solutions, we help ease those pains. Our experts and community of partners are here to help. Get in touch and let’s talk about your challenges and how Atlassian can be your partner for change. Or if you’d like to see Jira Align in action, check out our demo center to learn more.

When leaders get in the way and what to do about it