As the saying goes, the only constant is change.  In business, change may happen on a large scale during major initiatives, such as a merger or acquisition, or it may take place incrementally during the normal course of business evolution. Either way, driving or effectively managing change requires leaders to be agile and adaptable.

Leaders who are unable to keep pace with the rapid rate of change may fall behind, lose credibility and eventually fail to achieve results. Therefore, organizations should intentionally develop the critical capability of leadership agility needed to remain competitive and relevant.

Leadership agility refers to the ability to pivot quickly, adapt nimbly and make sound decisions in the face of uncertainty. It also entails being proactive, anticipating potential disruptions, and effectively leading others through change and ambiguity.

Distinguishing Large-Scale vs. Incremental Change

Organizational change can take many forms, but it generally falls into two categories: large-scale change and incremental change.

Large-scale change includes making major shifts in organizational strategy, structure, and/or culture and is typically driven by macro, external marketplace forces such as technological advances, globalization and shifting consumer demands. Large-scale change may also surface when executive leadership executes a merger or acquisition, announces a restructuring, or undertakes an enterprise-wide transformation.

Large-scale change is typically disruptive and challenging for employees, as it often requires individuals and teams to adapt to new ways of working, and to new technologies and new leadership. When the status quo is altered, it’s not uncommon for employees to demonstrate resistance, experience uneasiness and struggle with uncertainty.

Incremental change on the other hand, typically involves smaller, more gradual changes. This type of change is often driven by internal forces, such as a desire to improve efficiency, increase productivity or enhance customer satisfaction. Incremental change may not always be enterprise-wide, but may be more localized within a division, function, location or team.

Incremental change is generally less disruptive and easier to implement than large-scale change, as it involves smaller adjustments to existing processes and structures. Regardless, employees may still experience similar reactions and emotions.

How Organizations Successfully Navigate Large-scale and Incremental Change

Whether change is large scale or incremental, organizations can increase the likelihood of successful navigation by following four principles:

Principle 1: Proactively evaluate the change impact and business risks.

Change can be unsettling, and people are more likely to resist when senior leadership does not fully and clearly articulate the rationale for change and the potential individual and organizational impact. To successfully navigate change, leaders should anticipate the impact and potential risks to the business, employees and customers. By doing this, leaders can proactively plan for rather than reactively address potential barriers and roadblocks, thereby minimizing risks and negative impact.

Principle 2: Utilize a planned and disciplined implementation cascade. 

Many authors have noted the importance of execution planning and working with change agents throughout multiple levels of the organization. A planned and disciplined implementation cascade, focused on organizational, team, and individual levels, ensures that everyone involved in the change process understands their role and knows what’s expected of them. This approach also enables a systematic rollout to ensure any issues are timely, effectively and efficiently addressed.

Principle 3: Accelerate change by focusing on organizational culture.

Every organization has a culture. In a Forbes article, Steve Denning defines an organization’s culture as “an interlocking set of goals, roles, processes, values, communication practices, attitudes, and assumptions [that] fit together as a mutually reinforcing system….”

A strong, vibrant culture, where employees embrace change, is evident when people are willing to question the status quo, recognize that disruption provides opportunities for organizational and individual growth, and are comfortable pivoting when needed.  In this environment, employees are quicker to adopt and adapt. On the other hand, a weak or resistant culture may slow down or even sabotage change efforts. By focusing on organizational culture, organizations can create an environment that supports change and encourages everyone to work together toward a common goal.

Principle 4: Equip leaders to lead the change.

Seminal research by Edgar H. Schein emphasizes the critical role leaders play in cultural formation and maintenance, and also in driving and managing change. Leaders are responsible for communicating the need for change, guiding teams through the transition, and ensuring that everyone is engaged, motivated and performing optimally. By equipping leaders with the tools and resources needed to successfully manage change, organizations can increase the likelihood of achieving the desired outcomes.

Leadership Agility Is a Requirement for All Types of Change

The key to success with both large-scale and incremental organizational change is effective and agile leadership. Leaders must be able to effectively communicate the need for change, engage employees in the change process, and manage resistance to change.

Leaders need to balance the benefits of change with the potential disruption and cost to the organization. They must also identify the right mix of incremental versus large-scale change to maximize organizational performance.

Why Is It So Challenging To Train for Leadership Agility?

Leadership agility is a complex and multi-faceted skill set that involves a combination of cognitive, emotional, and behavioral competencies. Developing these competencies requires a significant investment of time and effort, as well as a willingness to challenge existing mindsets and behaviors.

4 Ways L&D Can Curate Learning Solutions That Drive Leadership Agility

Leadership agility is not something that can be developed overnight and requires a purposeful learning solution that results in true behavior change. Here are four ways that learning and development (L&D) professionals can drive true behavior change when developing leadership agility.

  1. Anchor leadership agility training with a practical framework. Most organizations are concerned with training being “sticky.” Practical frameworks provide a foundation for true behavior change at the macro-level by encouraging consistency and providing a common lexicon for the entire organization.
  2. Focus on experiential learning. Leadership agility training should focus on experiential learning where leaders learn to apply the framework to real-world business challenges and practice behaviors in a safe and controlled environment through simulations and/or role-playing exercises.
  3. Provide resources to make training practical. Rounding out training experiences with real-world resource application is a sure-fire way to make learning more practical. Resources may include leader implementation toolkits and job aids for quick reference on the job.
  4. Resist the urge for ad hoc training. Leadership agility is not the type of skill that can be achieved in a single training session. Learning professionals should thoughtfully curate a learning journey that encourages leaders to learn and apply leadership agility skills repeatedly.


In today’s rapidly evolving world, large-scale and incremental changes require leaders that can effectively navigate and balance the benefits and potential risks of change.  The ability to pivot quickly, adapt nimbly, and make sound decisions in the face of uncertainty is necessary for leaders to successfully lead and navigate change. However, leadership agility is a complex and multifaceted skill that requires a significant investment of time and effort to develop.

Creating learning solutions that result in sustainable, positive behavior change can feel like a tall order. However, L&D professionals can enhance organizational leadership agility by anchoring training with a practical framework, focusing on experiential learning and aligning the training with the organization’s goals.

Organizations that successfully prepare their leaders to lead and navigate complex change initiatives stand to achieve sustainable competitive advantage and success in the marketplace.

Register for the next in-person Training Industry Conference & Expo (TICE) to hear Wendy Heckelman and Tianna Tye’s session, “Change Happens! Leadership Agility Is a Critical Capability.”