10 High-Leverage Principles for Sustainable Organizational Change

by Tom Devane

What works – and what doesn’t – when it comes to organizational change

Leverage is the name of the game. That is, getting a substantial benefit from a moderate amount of effort. My organizational change journey spans a wide variety of industries, five continents, and three decades of experience. I’ve learned what works — and what doesn’t — when it comes to sustainable change. So, here are my 10, high-leverage recommendations:

1. Change the old leadership paradigm

Contemporary high-leverage leadership is not about having a powerful vision and disseminating it to others to execute. Rather, it’s about people confronting problems and then mobilizing the resources to help them achieve their directions and goals. This is a critical perspective for implementing large-scale, complex organizational changes. But beware: Altering old leadership paradigms is often easier said than done. It requires new training, mindsets, behaviors, peer support groups, and job rotations to be successful.

2. Enlist allies to achieve your vision

After becoming well versed in large-scale organizational change principles, there’s a natural tendency to want to jump in immediately. Having witnessed them work once or twice and seeing the sparks it ignites is a compelling reason move quickly. Resist this urge. Enlist a coalition of people who understand the theoretical base and share your ideas around evolving traditional approaches to change and leadership.

3. Establish a clear responsibility and accountability system

From command-and-control organizations to self-managed teams, all organizations benefit from a clear definition of responsibilities and a proactive system that uncovers performance issues. Having answers to questions such as, “Who needs to be involved in this decision?” and “Specifically, what would that involvement look like?” contribute mightily to organizations and communities achieving even their most aggressive stretch goals.

4. Have a great strategy and design a structure to implement it

Involve the right diversity of experience in planning the future. Ensure the group includes key areas, such as product/service offerings, consumer needs, market segments, external sourcing, and distribution channels. More CEOs are fired for the poor execution of a strategy than an inability to develop a good strategy. A specific structure designed to support change implementation increases the odds of success. For example, let’s say the organization’s new strategy calls for increased closeness to the customer. It makes sense to structure the organization into customer service teams instead of keeping a deep hierarchy that’s functionally shoed.

5. Build a high-performance structure

Organizational structures consisting of semi-autonomous teams that set and monitor their own goals create cultures of high commitment and extraordinary performance. Unfortunately, while leaders like to talk about the virtues of teamwork, very few commit to having a formal team structure. Many organizations do a good job of resolving the dual nature of work through a matrix, even though this structure is challenging. This remains more art than science.

6. Create opportunities for middle integration

In the course of a large-scale organizational change, or even the subsequent execution stage, middle managers can make or break the success of the change and its sustainability. It’s important for middle managers to have the opportunity to discuss (without their managers or direct reports) issues such as boss/subordinate relationships, cross-functional improvement opportunities, communication, interdepartmental handoffs, and people development issues.

7. Practice intelligent empowerment

Identify decisions that might be pushed downward in an organization. Accompany them with the appropriate information, skills training, and rewards.

8. Institute collective, group accountability

When a group is accountable for setting and achieving a goal, coaches and supporters increase the likelihood of achieving a goal. There’s the old adage about “when everyone’s responsible no one’s responsible.” But that argument doesn’t hold true in an organization where groups set and monitor goals, and are collectively rewarded or punished based on outcomes.

9. Be intentional about culture

Culture is something that can – and should – be intentional. This is true in organizations, communities, and nongovernmental organizations alike. Start by assessing your culture. I recommend a trusted, third-party survey, Using those insights, identify the major “from-to” areas. Consider how you will change ways of thinking and take action to support the desired state. Note any long-standing policies or practices ingrained in the organization and in people’s minds.

10. Implement a way to compensate for inherent weaknesses

As I mentioned earlier, the organizational structure is critical to implementing a change and then operating within the new parameters. Because design trade-offs must be made, there will always be weaknesses to address. For example, those organized along functional expertise will have some cross-functional blind spots. Alternatively, structures organized by processes include people whose technical skills begin to atrophy as they focus more on process outputs than maintaining expertise. A well-planned structure acknowledges these inherent weaknesses in order to strengthen the overall organizational framework.