Your Checklist for Organizational Change Sustainability

by Tom Devane

If I could boil down the best practices for organizational change sustainability into ten (or so) pithy points on a laminated card, I’d do it. But after extensive research, input from other experts, and personal experiences, it’s just not possible.

So here’s a checklist, organized by each change phase – start, middle, and end. These principles are applicable across countries, industries, communities, and nonprofits. You’ll find best practices that you, as a leader at any level, can design to ensure you’ll get sustainability at the end.

At the start of an organizational change 

Key high-leverage steps include:

  • Create a plan and strategy-structure combination. Start with a plan so you know where you’re headed. Ideally, one that’s co-developed with the team of people who are impacted. Then, build a structure that’s congruent with your plan.
  • Design early for sustainability. Don’t wait until the end of the project to consider this. Many buy-in and energizing events need to happen at the start.
  • Go slow early to go fast later. This helps in terms of shared assumptions, a common understanding, and commitment to joint actions. While it may seem to delay a project at the start, you’ll save time later. This way, people won’t do things two and three times, which slows down your change efforts. 
  • Conduct a risk analysis with key leaders, and discuss best- and worst-case scenarios. Look at potential risks such as budget changes or leadership rotation, and then formulate mitigating strategies for them from the start.
  • Design to get consultants out as soon as possible. This applies to both internal and external consultants. Enable people to develop their own capabilities to confront the problem and “own” the solution. 
  • Make appropriate investments in long-term improvement. Those with formal budgetary authority need to commit time, money, and other resources to the sustainability of key organization or community initiatives.
  • Evaluate systemic issues in the diagnosis and action planning stages. An organization or community needs to consider structures of key variables, feedback loops, and leverage points for both improvement and breakdown.

In the middle phase of a change effort

Key high-leverage elements include:

  • Make room for change to happen. In a dense organization, making room – or “clearings” – allows for something entirely different to happen. We may not know exactly what will happen, but as with a large-group method, we know we’ve created the potential for something new.
  • Engage people and increase the circle of participation. When people can make truly significant contributions, they start taking ownership and gain commitment. Once the core team has a strategy, continue to increase the circle of participation. 
  • Clear people’s plates for followup. Leaders need to help mobilize resources to accomplish the desired change. This is good for the individual’s capability to perform what is needed. It also sends a powerful message to the organization about what’s important.
  • Report progress and be transparent about it. Communicate what’s going on with key initiatives and activities. This ensures things stay on track – and enables you to get back on course if they’re not. Transparency enables a broad view so people can better support each other.
  • Set new norms and model them. This helps to set new standards as well as provide specific expectations and consequences. As more people take responsibility, leadership capacity within the organization or community grows.
  • Ensure conflict is productive and harness its power. Straight talk helps cut through the political verbal dances and managing conflict is an important part of the equation. 
  • Address stakeholder needs. Design for this to be addressed, even if the needs compete. Large-group methods that convene people with various interests and viewpoints are essential to a sustainable solution.
  • Strike a balance between energy creation and tool-enhanced improvement. The combination of “hard” and “soft” aspects of a change effort can provide both the desire to improve and the capability to improve. 
  • Go beyond large-group methods to facilitate sustainability. This requires a combination of methods and organization development actions, including one-on-one meetings, small-group training, getting feedback, etc. 

In the ending stage of an organizational change 

Key high-leverage elements include:

  • Create a mechanism for follow-up. Many large-scale initiatives fail because of poor execution, even with a good plan. This is why follow-up is key to organizational change sustainability. Ideas include implementation reviews by multidisciplinary steering committees, internal champions, and CEO attention.
  • Establish clear responsibilities. Know who’s doing what. Minimize duplicate activities and ensure the unexpected is covered. This is often done through “RACI” matrices: stating who has primary Responsibility, who has Approval rights, who needs to be Consulted, and who needs to be Informed.
  • Make the commitment public. People are more likely to keep a commitment if they make it in a public forum. Avoid one-on-one commitments and private goals that aren’t shared with the group. 
  • Track newly articulated results and behaviors. Jack Welch made a distinction between good and poor results and good and poor behaviors. It’s critical to embed the notion of results and behaviors into the formal evaluation system – and then modify the reward system to encourage positive.
  • Reinforce new behaviors. Wherever possible, reinforce desired new behaviors with recognition. Those who do not have formal authority or control budgets can use verbal encouragement and support their peers for new behaviors.
  • Establish sensors for monitoring. Situations tend to change rapidly. Create a way to stay on top of what’s happening so plans and structures can be adjusted accordingly and remain current.
  • Institute learning practices. To keep the momentum going, create a process to examine what’s going well versus what could be done differently the next time around. 

Organizational change sustainability remains elusive, but there’s good news

In closing, organizational change sustainability is in your grasp. But in order to achieve success, you’ll need to exert strong change leadership, apply the proven principles I’ve discussed, and set up the right conditions. This also requires you to abandon old notions. Sustainable change is less like cramming for an exam and more like an ongoing process that improves over time. What you do upfront matters a great deal. As Winston Churchill once noted, “We shape our buildings, then our buildings shape us.” It’s the same with our designs for sustainability.