A Leader’s guide to planning change

As a change consultant and coach, I’ve produced more plans with, and on behalf of, board executives and other senior professionals than I can remember: strategic plans, programme plans, business plans, workforce plans…the list goes on. The following three things have struck me about this:

1. Planning is a popular activity. Almost every client that I have worked with has asked for help with creating a plan. Essentially, they want to move from a messy, nebulous place of challenge to a place of clarity where they and their staff are engaged and motivated to take action.

2. Having a plan on paper can lead clients to think that they have a challenge ‘in hand’. Yet a plan in itself does not deliver change. It’s an enabler. The most important element of a plan is the engagement and thought process that creates it.

3. Existing plans can often lack the clarity needed to focus people on action and to be held to account for this.

So, my learning here is that organisations have a need for planning to bring clarity and to engage people in taking the right action, however, leaders don’t always know how to articulate what a good planning process looks like. In this article, I share some of my most important learning about planning for change in the form of nine recommended steps for leaders to consider when they are heading up change planning within their organisations.

STEP 1: Get clear on the challenge that you are trying to address.

This is an engagement exercise right from the start. Get the important people together that are part of, or are affected by, the challenge and understand its constituent parts. Lead workshops, meet people, visit departments, talk to customers / service users, send out surveys and so on. Listen. Be curious. Task your change team with capturing the intel centrally and theme it. What does this tell you about the challenge that you are trying to address? What impact is it having on staff, customers and other parties? What are the real root causes of this challenge? Who is involved? Ask for data to evidence the challenge but don’t let this hold you back from making progress.

STEP 2: Imagine the future.

Now, imagine that the challenge has been addressed. Create a shared vision of what this future would look like. Ask your leaders and other stakeholders to imagine this future in their minds and expand on this using open questions. Encourage people to draw, write or say what comes up for them. Ask: What can you see? How do you feel? What are our staff saying? What are they doing? What are our customers / service users saying? Who is part of this future? What else is going on? Get clear on when this future is happening and use this to create your first ‘line in the sand’

STEP 3: Define a shared vision.

The first two steps should produce a lot of information. Use your change resource to condense and summarise what has been produced, sharing this back with those who have contributed and others who will be affected by the change. Listen to the feedback. Turn all this information into a clear statement of the challenge and a vision that you and the leadership team are committed to publicising and delivering.

STEP 4: Define your change outcomes.

From the vision define three (and not more than five) measurable outcomes that you commit to achieving. An example outcome may be to recruit and retain the most highly trained staff in your field or to improve customer / service user satisfaction. For each outcome, ask your change team to define up to three measures that will indicate that you are making progress in the right direction for each outcome. For example, % turnover rates or customer feedback scores.

STEP 5: Create the bones of your plan.

Assemble a small, multi-disciplinary team to define the most significant changes that will achieve each outcome. A tool like a driver diagram can be useful here, to break down each outcome into primary drivers, secondary drivers and key actions. Alternatively, a version of a creative visualisation tool called ‘future pacing’ is to ask the team to imagine that they are looking backwards in time from having achieved your vision and to then define how they got there, starting with the most recent change.

STEP 6: Put flesh on the bones.

Schedule your agreed changes along a timeline. The mistake that I often see is that plans consist of a huge list of tasks. A clear plan that can be managed effectively focusses on key milestones, which at your level, should be a limited number of significant changes (not hundreds of tasks) that together, build towards your change outcomes. A milestone is a ‘line in the sand’: it says that by this date we will aim to have achieved x. For example, our new technology is live by January 2020.

STEP 7: Empower the right people.

As the leader, you are accountable for the achievement of the vision and outcomes. For each milestone, ensure that there is just one person that you empower to take responsibility for planning, delivery and reporting back. This person requires the right leadership mindset to be able to engage with others and motivate them to take action. Provide coaching and mentoring support to help your change leaders to reflect, learn and develop as they go. It’s their role to tell you what they need to be successful and your role to respond to this supportively whilst holding them to account.

STEP 8: Keep on top of real and potential challenges from the outset.

Keep risk and issue management simple throughout your change programme. Use the engagement activities up front to get risks and issues out on the table and delegate the significant ones to named individuals. Ensure that your change team and other leaders are continually building and maintaining relationships and acting as your eyes and ears.

Ask regularly for the top 3 risks (important things that might happen) and top 3 issues (important things that are actually happening) that need senior intervention or review. For example, someone senior not playing ball, a delay from a supplier or a legal pitfall on the horizon. Troubleshoot these openly with your change leaders or coach them to come up with their own solutions. Keep on top of the most important ones.

STEP 9: Be flexible but stay focussed on the vision and outcomes.

The flow of change may not go as planned. Keep reminding people why you are making the change and what the future will be like for them as a result. Reflect regularly on progress with your change leaders using coaching conversations. Encourage people to speak their minds and be prepared to act on what you hear.


Change is a somewhat organic process; however, planning is still essential to focus people on taking the right action towards a shared vision. Stay connected to people throughout your planning process and beyond. Provide coaching, mentoring and facilitation to support people and teams to reflect and grow. Finally, be willing to be flexible and refine your organisation’s planning process each time you use it so that it evolves to best fit your needs.


Sihem Bounoua is an Executive Coach and Founder of Rhapsody Senior Professionals (www.rhapsodycoaching.co.uk/seniorprofessionals) and Rhapsody Medical Leadership Development (www.rhapsodycoaching.co.uk/medical).