Much is being said right now about the phenomenon of change as an ongoing process: change is in fact, changing. In today’s dynamic disruptive world, we are in a constant state of flux. Better get used to it! Build the skills to become agile! But what if you must also pull off a singular large disruptive change, and one in which you don’t have much time? In these situations—just take newly-appointed UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s now 86-day countdown to delivering Brexit, the UK’s dramatic exit from the EU—how on earth do you need to lead?

I have found that the default leadership approach to such change is to become directive, top-down. An approach characterised by taking charge, tightly controlling what gets done. This approach works fine in crisis situations when the solution is obvious, and no new capabilities are required. But in time-strapped pressurised contexts requiring radically different solutions and mind sets, such an approach leads to failure.

So, what works? What works is something quite different, what I call an “emergent” approach to change. Derived from the study of complex adaptive systems, structures that can rapidly adapt to altered contexts where no single individual can call the shots, here are six tips I have found enable you to do this well.

Set a clear, compelling overarching intention. When working emergently you can be a little loose with your vision, no need to have everything worked out in detail. For, in unprecedented contexts, how can anyone figure out the precise answer in advance? Rather, capture hearts and minds with a magnetic pull towards purpose.

At the same time, it’s essential to have a few “hard rules” that give clear guidance as to expected behaviour—what’s it going to take to win. Such rules minimise ambiguity and enable independent decision-making, galvanising the whole entity into action. Far from controlling, these rules can be clarifying and liberating.

Have monomaniacal focus on the “ripe issues”. Nothing beats time running out to get to know what matters. And where there’s most heat and noise, unmet needs and disturbance, there is energy for action. This is not about quick fixes but identifying the few overarching priorities that will carry the system forward towards a new future – and getting all agendas lined up to them.

Leverage networked cells. Emergent change is a bit like virus spreading. You need to locate groups of people who are enthusiastically up for doing things differently, encourage rapid experimentation in these hot-spots, and then quickly spread the positive deviance from there. Join up across boundaries, establish hyper-connectivity and information flow. Rapid change spreads via horizontal networks, not vertical hierarchy.

Work step by step. Emergent change in unprecedented contexts is what I call “now-and-next” change. Knowing the intention, working within the hard rules, getting the networked cells focussed on the ripe issues, you then pretty much must “press play and see what happens”. Oh-so-difficult to do when time is running out and the ego is straining for a neatly laid out plan!

Finally, take care of self. Constant external pressure requires deep inner stillness if it’s to lead to breakthrough, not breakdown. One leader described this to me as “being in the eye of the storm”. I have found that all true movement can only come from a place of stillness, still moving.If you can’t be a witness to and regulator of your inner mental and emotional states, you’ll end up unconsciously repeating your story, staying stuck. And when time is not on your side this is not about regaining composure via a two-week meditation retreat but being able to notice and creatively regulate your impulses in the heat of the action, “being while doing”.

So far, just by hearing his early statements as leader, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has set out a loose intention for the next 86 days, “we are going to fulfil the repeated promises of parliament to the people and come out of the EU on October 31”, established some hard rules, “we must now create a new partnership with our European friends – as warm and close and as affectionate as possible”, and colourfully placed his Conservative party’s attention on the ripe issues, “’DUDE’: Deliver Brexit, Unite the country, Defeat Corbyn, Energise!”. He has also established a cross-department “war cabinet”, a network cell who will meet regularly to co-ordinate the 31stOctober exit goal.

Only time will tell if Johnson is an untrustworthy and deluded narcissist, or the UK’s saviour, but, with the clock ticking, he’s got off to a good start.



  • This blog gives the views of its author, not the position of LSE Business Review or the London School of Economics.
  • Featured image by Garry Knight, under a CC-BY-2.0 licence
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Deborah Rowland created the Still Moving change consultancy, helping CEOs and their teams around the world and offering Still Moving change practitioner programmes. She is also a member of the Archbishop’s Review Group into leadership development in the Church of England. In the 2017 Thinkers50 Radar, Deborah was named as one of the new generation of management thinkers changing the world of business. She is the co-author of Sustaining Change: Leadership That Works (Wiley, 2008), and now, Still Moving: How to Lead Mindful Change (Wiley, 2017), Deborah is a leading global thinker, speaker, writer, coach and practitioner in the field of leading large complex change. She has personally led change in organisations including Shell, Gucci Group, BBC Worldwide and PepsiCo. She has pioneered original research in the field, the latest efforts of which were accepted as a paper at the 2016 Academy of Management, and the 2019 European Academy of Management.