2015 / 11 November

Organizational Change, Taming the Beast!


Get ready to strap on your armor, mount your faithful steed, and … open your arms for a hug. If you’re going to effectively tackle organization change, you’re going to need to be resilient to attacks, fast moving, and have no small amount of empathy for the people around you. I say “effectively” because there are certainly many ways to implement change – some with horrendous consequences. However, with a deft hand, a good leader can reshape an organization like melting butter. Ok, that butter thing is probably a bad metaphor but you get the idea!

In a recent article, The Lost City of Atlantis And The Secret To Innovation, I briefly talk about the challenges a leader faces when trying to bring about a culture of innovation. That word “culture” represents one of the toughest challenges to overcome as a change agent. Along with financial pressures, company politics, human emotions, and many other obstacles, it’s hard for a leader to even know where to start when it comes to enacting change in their organization. I can’t possibly tell you everything you need to know about succeeding at organizational change in a single blog post — that’s the subject of entire books and some people make a career of it.

What I am going to share with you is a frame of reference for organizational change that I developed a long time ago and have been using successfully for many years.

Organizations, especially large ones, behave much in the same way as living organisms. They respond to both internal and external stimulus. There are many different types of stimulus but pain is probably the easiest to understand for the purpose of this analogy. Stimulus can be localized or broadly felt and the resulting behavior will vary accordingly. If you put your hand on something hot, you quickly yank your hand back. If a bus is about to run you over, your entire body reacts to jump back … well hopefully. Similarly, parts of an organization will react to localized competitive threats or challenges that threaten their existence. If the entire company is seriously threatened (e.g., an economic down turn), you can expect to see sweeping changes ripple through the entire organization. The key point here is that organizations change primarily as a response to stimulus. Leaders within the organization can set policy, issue orders, or create a compelling vision for change, but unless it’s backed up by some form of stimulus, don’t expect things to move quickly. Now, before I go too far I don’t want to sound like all stimuli has to be painful or negative. Those examples are just the easiest to understand and it’s important you choose the right tool for the job. Positive reinforcement is frequently an effective approach but you also can’t let people run amuck.

So, how do we predict how an organization is going to react when it is poked, prodded, or teased with incentives? And can we use that knowledge to help encourage positive change? Below you’ll see a diagram of the simple framework that I’ve successfully used for many years to help gauge how an organization will typically react based on the strength of the stimulus and the level of leadership engagement. What do I mean by “leadership engagement” in this context? I use it as a subjective measure of how much leadership cares and understands the need for change.

Here’s a brief description of each quadrant:

  • Covert Operations – This is an environment in which there is no significant pressure or stimulus being put on the organization and leadership generally has little interest in changing the status quo. You’ll often find individuals or teams of folks quietly working “under the radar” attempting to pursue change — slow, typically frustrating, and with inconsistent results.
  • Natural Section – This is a dangerous place to be for any organization. There is significant pressure being put on the organization’s survival but leadership seems to have a poor understanding of the challenges. The changes that are made are often knee jerk reactions. Poor performers who are able to successfully redirect their failures are often retained while stronger employees may be terminated (or more likely leave of their own accord) for failures outside of their control.
  • Grass Roots Initiatives – This is generally a positive state for most organizations, where the stimulus for change may be small but leadership has an interest in supporting improvements that may provide them with a competitive edge. Often more junior employees drive these improvements with senior-level sponsorship. Change is often slow but the outcomes are generally positive, including improved employee engagement.
  • Forced Evolution – This is state of rapid but controlled change, generally driven directly by top-level senior executives. The organization is often under a very significant external threat or is attempting to capitalize on a major competitive opportunity. The leadership has a strong vision for how to move forward. There is no guarantee of success, but the organization is extremely focused and quickly moves as a whole towards a set of common goals.

So, how does knowing this simple framework help? If you’re a change agent, one of the first things you need to understand is where does your organization fall within the above quadrants. The tools, techniques, and approach you apply to effect change are going to heavily depend on where you find yourself. If there is no significant stimulus for change, can you create it and accelerate a grass roots initiative? If your organization is panicking and natural selection is taking over, can you shift it towards forced evolution? A big part of a change agent’s job is working along the two axis of the above framework.

What about leadership engagement? You must ensure leadership fully understands the pain points or opportunities facing the organization. If you are unable to clearly articulate the facts in a way that resonates, it will be extraordinarily difficult to shift the organization in any meaningful way. Expect resistance; particularly if you are exposing a new pain point or an opportunity that moves the organization into unfamiliar territory.

What about the stimulus? As I mentioned before, stimulus can be both negative and positive. In fact, a combination of both is almost essential in the case of an organization that needs or wants to change quickly. The first thing a change agent needs to do is understand what stimulus already exists, quantify and measure it (if possible), and determine if it’s sufficient to drive the desired change. So, what if the stimulus is not sufficiently strong? Well, you can either just let things ride for awhile and be satisfied with the status quo – not necessarily a bad idea – or you can magnify the stimulus. What do I mean by that? If you’re in a leadership position or have influence over the leaders in the organization, you can establish policy, performance objectives, and incentives that can both create and magnify existing stimuli. I’m a technology guy; so let me give you a brief example related to the world of software development (this is a real example but I’ve taken liberty with some of the details to help illustrate my point):

Early in my career I was leading a high performing software development team. They really produced a high quality product with few production defects and customer satisfaction was on very solid ground. However, I knew that our productivity could be even higher if we transitioned to a more Agile software development philosophy that integrated the business directly onto our team and we more openly embraced changes to requirements. The stimulus for change was pretty low – everyone was happy with the status quo. So, what did I do? First, I began repeatedly educating senior leadership about the benefits of Agile software development, pushing industry metrics, customer satisfaction data and many other benefits. I was also fortunate to have a boss that was a strong supporter and was instrumental in providing air cover as the naysayer’s lobbed arrows. This created a bit of interest amongst stakeholders but not enough for the organization to really to take things seriously. The second thing I (we) did, was launch an Agile software development pilot project. We picked one project, didn’t ask for a lot of permission, and then ensured it was a tremendous success. We used the metrics collected from the project and the tremendous accolades coming from our internal customers to ignite the fire of a much bigger organizational change. Quite frankly, the metrics we collected were less important than the emails and phone calls coming from the business folks to our CIO saying what we were doing was the best thing since sliced bread. This simple approach crystalized the opportunity in the minds of our senior leadership and also created a bit of pain for other teams who continued to resist.

To wrap things up, here’s a final word of advice. You’ll need to develop thick skin, the ability to think quickly on your feet, and most importantly, you’ll need to be able to empathize with those that stand persistently against you. It’s no secret that people typically don’t like a lot of change — it’s unbalancing.

Genuine empathy is one of the greatest tools you can wield to gain peoples trust and sway naysayers to your viewpoint.

Even if they don’t fully share your opinion, they are much less likely to put up major obstacles if they believe you genuinely understand their position. Trust is king!

There’s a lot more to talk about when it comes to organizational change, so if you want to hear more about successful techniques, tools, and approaches let me know by commenting, liking or sharing this blog post via your Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+ and Facebook social media platforms. I encourage you to join the conversation or ask questions so feel free to add a comment on this post.

You can also find me on twitter at @NewFrontierCIO for more commentary on the frontiers of technology, leadership, space exploration, and science.


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