Times change, and we change with them. It’s not overstating the case to say that change is the new normal; to thrive in today’s dynamic business environment, continuous transformation is an imperative. Constant reinvention is the only way to meet customers’ ever-changing needs, create a competitive advantage and capitalize on strategic opportunities. Yet despite a clear mandate for change, studies show that in most organizations, two out of three major change initiatives fail.   

A strategic vision is a critical component for change, but it’s not enough to ensure success. Leadership through business transformation will ultimately dictate whether a change initiative sinks or swims.

To drive change effectively, leaders must appreciate the difference between change management and change leadership. Change management is the sum of the tools and methodologies used to deliver incremental change to encourage user adoption, avoid disruption and curtail rebellion. Experts have developed a rich literature of change management theory, but it is often neglected or under-resourced (whether financially or in terms of skills and headcount) in practice.

Change leadership, on the other hand, is transformative rather than incremental, and it is the fundamental driving force behind any major change. Change leadership involves creating a vision for the future, ensuring the conditions for success and driving the team toward genuine business results.

Create a vision for the change

A strategic vision for change is more than a well-articulated objective statement or flawless communication document. It tells a compelling story about the new reality it will help create and how the change will influence stakeholders. Many successful leaders use personal anecdotes and other modes of storytelling to paint an inspired picture. A strategic vision also answers critical questions: What opportunities will the new initiative realize? How will it exceed customer expectations? How will it enable you to be better, faster and smarter as an organization? In addition to linking the initiative to measurable business objectives, an effective strategic vision allows you to execute an “outside-in” perspective, envisioning what your customers and stakeholders will experience in the new reality.

Align senior leadership first

Organizations that are able to successfully transform ensure that senior leadership is on board with the proposed change and direction before developing timelines, budgets and resource plans. It is impossible to address every detail in advance, but leaders should agree on the overall objective and how it will be achieved. Key barriers to change, including inadequate resources, organizational structure and capabilities, should also be reviewed, and leaders should discuss plans to resolve them. Many organizations waste valuable time, money and team focus by not addressing these big-picture issues up front.

Stakeholder alignment is also best completed before the project plan development begins. No single approach can convince all stakeholders to buy in on a project. In some cases, a facilitation session works well; for others, individual conversations are more effective. Don’t forget to decide how issues will be resolved: Who’s accountable for major decisions? Should a challenge arise, who needs to be consulted, and who needs to be informed?

Build a team that can get it done

Now that you’ve built the chassis, you need an engine to power you to your destination. The most essential component of that engine is the people who make the initiative a success. Select a driver who has the skills, experience and leadership necessary to succeed. This person’s achievements should be wholly dependent on the overall success of the initiative, not parsed between a mix of project and operational responsibilities.

Once the driver is in place, take a hard look at the other resources you will need and staff accordingly. Many complex projects have met an early demise because the organizers did not have the right resources on board from the beginning. For many organizations, project staffing requires a mix of internal expertise and external horsepower. Find people who understand how your organization works, and seek out advisors who have external experience and an outside view to drive things forward. Once the team is in place, empower it with the authority and resources to get things done. Set the direction, but trust your team to figure out the tactics.

Keep momentum by creating a sense of urgency

Large-scale transformation requires consistent energy and enthusiasm from the organization. Many companies take a “big bang” approach to change initiatives — an abrupt changeover often accompanied by significant momentum that diminishes as the going gets tough. Combatting that pattern of failure requires attention and follow-through. With long initiatives, build momentum by celebrating successes and declaring victory when substantial milestones are reached.

In the end, success is less about completing the project or reaching a milestone than it is about achieving business results. Being a change leader for your organization requires you to pursue impact relentlessly. It requires a commitment to transformational, rather than incremental, change — and the ability to set a vision and align your teams and resources behind it.