Strategic change – are you soft or hard?

The challenge

I have been working with many different organisations in the last few years including not-for-profits and church organisations. Working with not-for-profits, churches, social enterprises and other community focused organisations it is clear that they march to a different drum from commercial bodies, even if they share many of the same challenges and processes that exist in any organisation.

A part of this is that they conceive, articulate and launch strategic changes differently from commercial organisations.

It is as though the different drumbeat becomes even more significant when change is needed. Whether change is to address strategic misalignment, operational misfiring, financial issues, rapid capacity change, poor HR practice or a non-specific ‘cultural’ malaise, the need to instigate change heightens everyone’s senses. In this flashpoint for organisational conflict it seems to provoke leaders to rely on ‘heritage’ levers to effect the change, especially if it is strategic.

Having observed this across all different sorts of organisations I have noticed that the result is that leaders tend to lean towards one of two slightly different toolsets to lead the change – either to soft or hard tools – and this shapes how they visualise and articulate the need, goals and approach:

Sometimes the focus is the tangible – metrics, resources, structures, planning, new or changed services, different task roles. Easy to express and visualise, much more manageable for the programme team to track and leaders to defend spend on. Its all hard factors and goals.

At other times it is the intangible – values, education, attitudes, skill development, concepts and ideas looking for engagement and discussions, shifts in thinking, commitment and new ways of conceiving what is being done. They emphasise the soft.

Yes, this sometimes reflects the nature of the change that leaders think is needed but just as often it seems to be a reflection of their conception of the nature of the organisation or their personal preferences and a response to the natural risk of change.

Rarely do I see changes which consciously span both aspects and weave them together. Yet this weaving is so important in the definition and realisation of the best outcomes and sustained, substantive changes.

Even a brief look at sports or military action reveals the immense power of combining the power of both hard and soft factors to help make changes work well.

The incredible success of British cycling over the last 20 years has been down to a rich combination of soft and hard working together (see Guardian) with funding, technical edge, training, motivation of the masses and sports psychology all playing their part to such effectiveness that after Rio other countries were left scratching their heads – even after large investments (BBC News). At a more localised level those who watch tennis can readily see the impact of both technique and mental strength as factors in individual match performance.

Similarly in battles the combination of skills, armaments and logistics alongside morale, ideas and leadership provide a similar endorsement of soft~hard combinations. Many famous battles have been won by commanders using the same combination of morale and personal commitment plus tools and strategy.

Yet too often we seek to address change in organisations reaching largely for only one part of the potential toolbox rather than both.

I think that this might be for many reasons in addition to our risk averse tendencies:

  • The mental model that we create of the nature of the change is framed on a partial view, perhaps an analogy that leans to the technocratic or the interpersonal, the activities needed or the being desired
  • The personal character and style and functional experience shapes the most comfortable tools to use (a hammer has always worked for me…)
  • Our approach to strategic change is shaped by supporting third parties who justify their existence by a focus on one or other toolset
  • We see the issue in terms of only a limited set of dimensions or causes and therefore seek an angle on the issue rather than a probing to gain a more comprehensive understanding of the solution
  • We simply don’t devote the time needed to make the change work and stick. We do something and once the first elements are showing promise we move on only therefore engaging with a part of the requirement


Sadly this often means that the big shifts needed in an organisation rarely get tackled soon enough or effectively enough and often reoccur until an existential crisis destroys that area or aspect of the organisation.


Here are four ways to challenge yourself and your team to enrich your vision of the change and the routes to achieving it.

Understand your own biases

Start by asking yourself about your default approach to a change and see how it might bias your understanding and approach and where it will leave your approach weakest.

When you think of major change what disciplines do you reach into? (change as change, learning, development, strategy, design or innovation?)

What mental models come to mind – strategic or military analogies? GANNT charts? Design approaches?

Do you tend to put most emphasis on particular facets – governance, targets, values, people, activities etc?

Looking back on your successful changes what are the common strategies and tools (that you may naturally seek to lead with)?

This may help you to recognise areas that additional reflection, analysis or definition is needed in identifying the goals and vision or the strategies to pursue.

Encourage diversity of viewpoints

Gathering diverse yet committed viewpoints into the team helps in the definition and articulation of the change and in bringing a more rounded perspective. It will help challenge singular, ill-formed or limited views of the strategic needs and strategies..

Much as you might use De Bono’s six hats you can allocate different perspectives around a group to assess the situation and refine the change agenda. Perspectives might include those of different constituents (internal and external) or themes (e.g. values, behaviours, habits, the intangible, activities, products/offerings, structures, resources)

This will continue to be of value in the governance of the programme – as long as time is built into the group’s agenda to reflect and review progress and outcomes and to be curious about what is happening.

Focus on the a well defined set of outcomes or benefits

The rich thinking that is needed to generate a well-balanced vision or strategies for change is often very effectively catalysed by a determined focus on the outcomes that any change needs to create in order for it to be worthwhile. In NFP’s this might be captured by the fashionable area of ‘theories of change’, in commercial organisations it is normally framed in terms of benefits to be realised.

Thinking needs to push into outputs from the change and then beyond into the outcomes that need to be realised fo this to be a powerful approach, capturing the mental models that links these and the context under which they are operating. I have found this to be a very helpful way of pushing thinking beyond the hard to the soft and vice versa when it becomes clear often programmes define their goals at an intermediate point that puts outcomes at risk or leaves them undefined.

Choose a richer framework

We all make use of frameworks or models to probe the nature of the outcomes needed. A way of challenging your team and yourself is to deliberately use wider more comprehensive ones and press on the nature of the interdependencies that are present.

The choice depends on context but it might mean using a competency or component model, or the Burke-Litwin framework; Porter’s competitive analysis; PESTLE or other checklists and scaffolding for considering an issues more fully.


Thinking round the challenges and covering both softer and harder routes to the vision can help unlock  easier and more effective ways of effecting strategic change.

This helps to strengthen the change and overcome the cultural or practical barriers that undermine sustained, significant impact.