Managing organizational change on the run

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We all know that the only constant is change. If you've been wondering how to manage change within your organization this article may provide some answers.

The Common Change Model & Why It Doesn't Work

The common model of change that has been taught for many years consists of three phases: first, unfreeze the organization, second, make the change and finally refreeze the organization in the new model. While this makes intuitive sense and fits well with our perception of planning and then implementing it is difficult to follow in an environment characterized by wave after wave of change. In fact many organizations are still recovering from the last change as the next one hits. In this type of environment a model to handle continuous change combined with continuous learning is a necessity.

Why Change Initiatives Fail

While there are many reasons any particular change initiative may fail there are several common causes of failure.

  • Lack of a compelling case for change. Just because you are the senior staff person or Board Chair and you happen to think that change is needed doesn't necessarily mean everyone does. It is important that a critical mass of people within each level of your organization sees and understands the compelling need for change and the urgency associated with that need.
  • Change rarely unfolds the way you planned it. Realize that although you may have planned the change, this only prepares you to better handle the unseen constraints and challenges you will encounter. Expect that the existing management systems, processes and culture will naturally equilibrate at the status quo.<
  • Inability to budget sufficient management time. With every major organizational change senior management should expect to allocate 30% of their time to promoting, managing, mentoring and generally being a significant sponsor of the change initiative. This also means that management's actions must be consistent with the words.
  • Insufficient communication. While it is generally understood that all change initiatives require communication, it is hard to internalize just how much communication is really needed until you've had to lead a major change. Plan on over communicating and you just may communicate enough.
  • Not providing enough focus on the belief system. I often hear that it was the employees that caused the change initiative to fail. While at the same time the management team gave little to no consideration of the employee's belief system; i.e. who they can trust, what behaviors are rewarded and / or punished. These beliefs are influenced by training and communication but mostly by their experience. So employees need to see real and consistent examples in order to change their beliefs.

The Hard & Soft Aspects of Change

To successfully manage any change it must address both the hard and soft aspects of the organization. The hard aspects include:

  • Individual tasks
  • Organizational structure
  • Information & decision processes
  • Compensation
  • People

The soft aspects include:

  • Individual roles
  • Groups
  • Networks
  • Rewards
  • People

You'll note that "people" are included in both the soft and hard aspects of the organization. This is to ensure that sufficient consideration; time, energy and resources are focused on dealing with the "people". Eventually any successful change will require a change in people's behavior or a change in the people.

Using this organizational model helps us understand that change requires an integrated approach and that there really is no "unaffected" part of an organization during a significant change process.

The Compelling Case For Change

For many organizational wide change initiatives the compelling case comes out of the development of a new strategic direction. As a result of working through the process of developing a strategy, undertaking environmental scans, conducting scenario planning and debating the trade-offs of resources vs. desires to establish key priorities, the management team reaches consensus on the need, degree of change and time frame within which it is required. The documentation and analysis during the strategic planning process has built both an objective and emotionally engaging case for change. As such, communicating this information can be a critical step in making the compelling case for change. In fact, you can even structure your strategic planning process to build commitment and understanding of the need for change throughout the organization.

The Effort Required to Sustain Change

Unless everyone understands why he or she needs to change, they won't. To understand how ingrained and comfortable we become with the status quo I ask you to try the following exercise over the next week. When you go home tonight put your keys or purse (depending on which you carry) in a different place than you normally would. And change the place you put your keys or purse each evening for the next week. At the end of that process think back on your level of frustration and / or additional amount of time it took you in the morning to get out the door because your keys/purse weren't where they were supposed to be! Think of your productivity loss for the week (i.e. extra time plus increased frustration) which was associated with a simple act of moving of your keys / purse. Now imagine the impact of an organizational change on someone who has been doing the same job for a year, 5 years or even 10 years. This exercise helps you to get an idea of the amount of energy required to modify behaviors in order to enable sustained change.

What's The Basic Process For Successful Change?

While the steps for each situation will vary, the basic steps are as follows:

Key Message
Building the case for change
  • The change has to be understood and internalized by a critical mass of people within each level of the organization and a sense of urgency communicated.
  • The vision, mission, priorities and values of the organization and the reason for the change.
  • Town hall meetings
  • Focus groups
  • Staff meetings
  • Create a Steering Committee
  • Pull together a team that has the power to lead the change. In selecting committee members give consideration to position power, expertise, credibility and leadership.
  • Rationale for the Steering Committee, skills, representation, participative process and Committee role and authority.
  • Staff meetings
  • In-house publications
  • E-mails
  • Plan The Change Tasks
  • Develop a detailed plan of the change tasks with associated timelines and responsibilities.
  • How the change process will unfold and the avenues you have available for feedback and input.
  • Every way you can possibly think of!
  • Mobilizing The Change
  • Using the detailed plan to allow the changes to take place while allowing people to experience it, try new ideas and modify their behaviors and beliefs.
  • Create an environment of initiative, safety and optimism. It's okay to try and fail.
  • Management support
  • Staff meetings
  • Q&A meetings
  • E-mails
  • Sustain The Change
  • The focus should be on rewards, performance management and ensuring experience supports the required new belief system.
  • Focus on continuous improvement, belief system, innovation and celebration of success.
  • Regular staff meetings
  • Individualized performance management
  • E-mails

    Key Points

    Several key points to remember in handling organizational change include:

    • Build support through development of a compelling case.
    • Create a sense of urgency.
    • Communicate, communicate, communicate.
    • Everything is connected ­ people, processes, structure, culture, etc.
    • Build-in and celebrate short-term wins.
    • Ensure alignment between the changes so that structure, systems, rewards and performance management all support the change.
    • Management and Board behavior must be consistent with the message.

    Ron Robinson is the president of ABARIS Consulting Inc. He can be reached at (519) 472-9788 or This article is provided free of charge, for information purposes only and is not intended, represented or to be inferred as providing advice. ABARIS Consulting Inc. makes no warranty, express or implied, or assumes any legal liability for accuracy, completeness, or usefulness of any information provided in whole or in part within this article.

    ABARIS Consulting Inc. is credited as the source on all copies, reproductions and distributions, and is credited as the original publisher.

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