A Checklist for Organizational Change

by Tom Devane

The Sustainability of Results: Part III

I hadChange Management Checklist hoped I could boil down all the best global practices for organizational change sustainability into eight (or so) pithy points that would fit on a small laminated card. But after extensive research, input from the 95 contributing authors, and personal experiences, it’s just not possible.

So here is a checklist, organized by change phase – start, middle, and end—to include in your sustainability design process. I’ve included universal principles that are applicable across countries, industries, communities, and nonprofits. You’ll find conditions that you, as a leader at any level in your community or organization, can design to ensure you’ll get sustainability at the end.

At the start of an organizational change effortChange ManagementKey high-leverage elements include:

  • A plan and strategy-structure combination to achieve it. It’s important to know where you’re headed, so it’s essential to have a plan. Ideally, it is co-developed with representatives from the entire system that’s affected. Then there needs to be a structure that’s congruent with the plan.
  • Design early for sustainability. Don’t wait until the end of the project because 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 going forward. While it may seem to delay a project at the start, it saves time later because people won’t be doing things two and three times, and resisting change, which slows the project down.
  • 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 (external or internal) out as soon as possible, so people can confront their own issues and own the “solution.” Groups need to develop internal capabilities to deal with their own problems, and own them.
  • 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 of an organizational change effortChange managementKey high-leverage elements include:

  • Design “clearings”. In a dense organization, cutting out a clearing makes room for something entirely different to happen. We may not know exactly what will happen, but as with a large-group method, we know we have created the potential for something new.
  • Meaningfully engage people and increase the circle of participation. When people can make truly significant contributions, they start taking ownership and gain commitment. Once an initial group develops a core strategy, continuing to increase that circle of consequential participation creates an organizational energy groundswell.
  • Clearing people’s plates for follow-up. Leaders need to help mobilize resources to accomplish the desired sustainable change. This not only is good for the individual’s capability to perform what is needed, but also sends a powerful message (by example) to the organization or community of what is important.
  • Transparent reporting of progress. It’s important to track and report progress of key initiatives and activities to ensure that they are being performed, and get back on track if they are not. Transparency enables a broad view into progress so that people can support each other in accomplishing the work to be done.
  • Leadership systems with many leaders and role models. Early adopting formal leaders set the new norms and model them, as well as provide specific expectations and consequences. As more people take responsibility, leadership capacity within the organization or community grows.
  • Conditions and training for, as well as modeling of, straight talk and harnessing productive conflict. Straight talk helps cut through the political verbal dances that often occur in organizations or communities—and managing conflict is an important part of the overall straight-talk equation. The truth is that it can be useful in moving an organization or community to a better place. Strive to make conflict productive and harness its power.
  • Design for multiple stakeholders’ needs to be adequately addressed, even if they seem to compete. Large-group methods that convene people with various interests and viewpoints are essential to a sustainable solution.
  • Strike the appropriate 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. 
  • Use more than large group methods to facilitate sustainability. A solid plan for sustainability requires a combination of large group methods and traditional organization development actions, such as: one-on-ones, one-on-small-group training, one-to-many-with-feedback, and changes to policies and practices.

In the ending stage of an organizational change effortChange managementKey high-leverage elements include:

  • Mechanism for follow-up. Many a large-scale initiative fails because of poor execution, even with a good plan. Powerful implementations of this concept include self-managed teams and active citizen groups. Other strategies include reviews by multidisciplinary steering committees, internal champions, and CEO attention.
  • Establish clear responsibilities. Minimizing duplicate activities and ensuring that the unexpected is covered comes through knowing who is responsible for what. This is often done through “RACI” matrices, clearly stating who has primary Responsibility, Approval rights, needs to be Consulted, or needs to be Informed.
  • Public commitment to responsibility areas. As Kurt Lewin researched and demonstrated many years ago, people are more likely to keep a commitment if they make it in a public forum, versus just committing one-on-one to someone, or silently writing personal goals on a piece of paper and not sharing them with anyone.
  • Track both newly articulated results and behaviors, as well as appropriate follow-up. A tool developed during the Jack Welch reign at General Electric clearly made a distinction between good and poor results, and good and poor behaviors. Critical to this strategy was to embed the notion of results and behaviors into the formal evaluation system, and then modify the reward system to encourage behavior changes.
  • Reinforcement. Wherever possible, those in formal authority need to reinforce desired new behaviors with monetary means as well as intrinsically motivating means that they have at their disposal. Those people who do not have formal authority or control budgets can use verbal encouragement and support their peers for new behaviors.
  • Continual external and internal scanning to remain current. In today’s turbulent environment, external and internal situations change so rapidly it’s important to establish sensors for monitoring what’s happening so plans and structures can be adjusted accordingly.
  • Learning processes and practices to sustain momentum. To keep a positive momentum going, it is helpful to institute learning processes (like periodic lessons learned analyses that critically examine what went well versus what might be done differently next time). Organizations and communities that learn quickly will change swiftly and effectively.

In closing, it’s important to note that organizational change sustainability remains elusive for many. The good news is that for those wishing to exert strong change leadership, apply proven principles for sustainability, and develop conditions for sustainability, success is within their grasp. To do this, however, we need to abandon old notions of achieving sustainability. It is less like cramming for an exam the night before, and more like an ongoing building process where new designs are continually added to a strong foundation. What we do up front in a change effort indeed matters a great deal. Winston Churchill once noted, “We shape our buildings, then our buildings shape us.” It’s the same with our designs for sustainability.

Source: The Change Handbook

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