Monday, February 16, 2015

How to Succeed at Organizational Change

Sometimes the Grass IS Greener
It is quite common for people to be envious of a neighbour's greener grass. Often, such envy leads employees to seek employment elsewhere. For the business owner however, that is not an option. Part of the allure of entrepreneurship is the challenge of making your own grass greener than the neighbour's. This is not always that easy. Change can be a frightening thing. However, the browner your grass, the more urgent it is to start changing. At the risk of taking this metaphor too far: sometimes all that is needed is a little watering; other times some fertilizer must be applied (please avoid b.s.); sometimes there are weeds to be pulled; and sometimes, the best approach is to torch it and start all over.

It is often said that the only thing that doesn't change is change itself. So before going into a discussion of how to change, it is important to start with a caveat. Despite my light-hearted introduction, do not institute changes for their own sake. Remember that your stakeholders are people. We are all already confronted with change in our lives at a pace that continues to accelerate. Too much change, too often can lead to burn out. If change is warranted, ensure that sufficient time is given for those affected by the change to adapt to it, and recover from it.

Regardless how severe the change, all organizational change must go through the same basic stages. Kurt Lewin referred to these stages as unfreezing, changing, and refreezing. I don't particularly like the frozen analogy, because it implies a state that can only be affected by an external force, yet the most successful changes come from within. Regardless what you call them however, it is important to recognize that organizational change involves more than just applying some specific changes. It requires effort to prepare for the change, and requires effort to internalize the change (Lewin's unfreezing and refreezing respectively).

The actual act of changing is, in and of itself, not difficult. It is a decidedly mechanical function of considering options, analyzing merit, risk, and other factors, and implementing the best option. However changes often fail, and usually it is the result of failure to adequately prepare for and internalize the change.

Preparing for change involves communicating the urgency of the situation that demands the change. This can be an uncomfortable task for an entrepreneur as it exposes frailties. Often entrepreneurs will want to present a certain air of infallibility. This would be a mistake. By conveying urgency and taking the stakeholders into one's trust, one will have an easier time of generating buy in. It is well known that people support what they help create.

Next identify team members who will guide the change effort. Ideally, this group should be comprised of representatives from all stakeholder groups. There are exceptions of course. For example, suppliers may be stakeholders, but it is not always appropriate to include them in this group. It is very important at this stage to ensure that this group is empowered to develop the required change strategy, and that this empowerment is communicated clearly to the entire organization.

There, now that we have adequately prepared, changing can take place.

Once the analysis of the change has been completed, and the change has been implemented, it is vital to communicate the empowerment of all stakeholders to contribute to the success of the change. This involves, among other things, identification and removal of obstacles. It never ceases to amaze me that a great deal of effort would go into planning and executing change, and then the change fails because the staff are blocked by an artefact of "the way we always do it." The stakeholders need to be assured from the very top of the organization that this change is sanctioned, and that any observations as to how it can be enhanced are welcome.

Immediately following implementation, it is vital to look for, and celebrate, wins. Initially, they will be small wins. Take them. Success breeds success. Communicating these wins will encourage a culture that seeks success. The stakeholders will begin to look for other ways that will demonstrate that the change was worthwhile. This will not only reinforce the current change, but it will also serve to grease the wheels of future change.

As more and more examples of success come to the front, ensure that all stakeholders are given the opportunity to learn from the collective lessons. Seek out opportunities to cross-pollinate. How can lessons from one group, say Operations, be integrated into the practices of another group such as Sales. This cross-pollination will act as a multiplier effect, creating yet more success. Often, it produces a certain amount of friendly competition as each groups strives to be recognised for their victories.

Monitoring the progress, and documenting success, failures, and lessons learned, will reinforce the change. By involving all stakeholders, and rewarding those who produced the most significant gains, the culture of the organization will evolve into one that is less stagnant and more receptive to change.

Now if you'll excuse me, I have some mowing to do.


Photo Credit: Sometimes the Grass IS Greener by: tinyfroglet (

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