Farayi Chipungu: two big ideas for successfully leading change

Harvard Kennedy School of Government's Farayi Chipungu explains how to approach challenges and examines why truly transformative leaders often disappoint people

Leading change can be a daunting task. The failure rate of organisational change efforts can vary widely based on factors including industry, context and leadership. The COVID-19 pandemic, for example, was a big transformation challenge for organisations. They had to make quick changes, like having people work from home and changing how they operate. Some organisations did well and found new ways to succeed, while many others struggled. 

For change leadership experts like Farayi Chipungu, adjunct academic at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, failure isn't a source of fear but an opportunity for learning. “For the last 40 years, we at Harvard have been studying leadership failures," she said. 

“We have welcomed hundreds of students through our doors, some very senior – former ministers, presidents, CEOs, and some in the middle or more junior in their careers. And every year for the last 40 years, we have asked them to share stories of how they have tried to lead on significant issues and the contexts in which they have failed.” 

Ms Chipungu, who recently delivered the keynote presentation at the 2023 AGSM Professional Forum followed by a virtual adaptive leadership masterclass, delved into the nuances of leading change and shared two big ideas gleaned from decades of research at Harvard University.  

‘Diagnostic failure’: why change leaders often fail 

Ms Chipungu introduced the concept of adaptive leadership, which she and her team at Harvard have been studying for the past four decades. Drawing on their extensive research, Ms Chipungu explained there is one significant factor that directly contributes to the failure of organisational change efforts, a concept she termed “diagnostic failure”.

“A diagnostic failure causes the biggest waste of time and resources in organisational change efforts; people get the diagnosis of the problem wrong, and so they get the solution wrong,” she said. 

Diagnostic failure occurs when leaders misdiagnose the nature of the problem they're trying to solve, and there are two primary reasons for this. First, there's a personal inclination for leaders to solve problems and be seen as the go-to person. Second, political pressures from superiors and subordinates often demand quick fixes, even if those solutions might not be best suited to the problem. 

For example, she noted that people often treat complex challenges as technical problems with known solutions, neglecting the need for discovery, engagement, and collaboration, which can result in over-promising, under-resourcing, and the need for more time to allow for learning.

“Adaptive issues evoke strong emotions, and discussions often stall due to the perceived losses associated with change. Our collective experience of working through the COVID pandemic has provided some understanding of what it feels like to tackle adaptive challenges,” she said. 

The solution: technical vs. adaptive strategies   

When a problem is technical in nature, it’s easier to figure out what's wrong and how to fix it based on what we know from the past. Often, the solutions are simpler and require time and money. But some problems require us to try new things, and Ms Chipungu said these problems are called 'adaptive.' The more adaptive a problem is, the more learning it requires, and the people who are directly affected become responsible for solving it, often invoking strong emotions. 

“Because the problem is unclear, the solution is also often unclear. Attempts at solving the problem may result in recurrence or failure, leading to frustration and wasted resources... You cannot make progress on an adaptive challenge without the people because the people with the problem are both the problem and they are also the solution,” she said.  

She used real-world examples, such as the challenges faced during the COVID-19 pandemic, to underscore the differences between technical and adaptive problems. She emphasised that adaptive issues demand active involvement from the people affected by the problem since they are both the problem and the solution. Progress in adaptive challenges necessitates a collective shift in how individuals perceive their roles and responsibilities. 

She also cited the 2023 voice referendum as a prime example of an adaptive challenge. “Progress requires a fundamental shift in how they perceive themselves, whether as an organisation, community, or country,” she said. “When the work is adaptive – you need to involve the people with the problem. They are the problem, and they are also the solution. You cannot open people up and put a chip in their heads. They need to own the transition, the learning and the trade-offs that come with the transition.”  

Don’t be afraid to disappoint people 

Ms Chipungu's second major insight focused on the leadership dilemma arising from the expectations of those around us. She invited the audience to reflect on the expectations they face and how these expectations might influence their leadership decisions. This idea was underpinned by the notion that leadership often involves going against the expectations of others, which can be uncomfortable and challenging.  

“Leadership is about disappointing people,” said Ms Chipungu, who explored why leaders often find themselves in a delicate balance between pushing for change and staying within the boundaries of expectations. She even used her experience in preparing for the keynote presentation as an example of the calculations leaders frequently make between fulfilling formal expectations and addressing informal or implied expectations. 

Leaders can get stuck within the confines of these expectations, unable to lead change effectively, and she urged them to recognise and navigate the discomfort of going against established norms. By doing so, they can lead transformation without overwhelming their teams. “There is no such thing as a broken system. Every system is designed to get exactly the results it is currently getting,” she said. 

Despite the challenges of leading change (and some inevitable failures), Ms Chipungu said there are solutions. Transformational change doesn't have to be overly disruptive; it can be integrative and allow for learning. “Don’t overwhelm people – pick the critical changes and do it at a rate that people can tolerate (that is why diagnosis is so important),” she said. 

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So truly transformative leadership sometimes requires disappointing people’s expectations. By acknowledging this tension between established expectations and the need for change, she encouraged leaders to step out of their comfort zones, embrace adaptive approaches, engage with the complexities of change, and ultimately drive meaningful transformation within their organisations and communities.  

“Change in nature requires a shift in DNA sequences, the deletion of old patterns, and rearrangement. That process requires sorting through three key questions: What DNA do we keep, what do we let go of, and where do we need to innovate,” she said.   

“When teaching these concepts, I often encounter resistance because no one wakes up in the morning aiming to disappoint others. However, like breaking eggs is necessary to bake a cake or to change DNA is crucial for a butterfly to develop wings, certain losses are necessary for progress and transformation.” 

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