What Works (and What Doesn’t) When it Comes to Organizational Change

by Tom Devane

10 High-Leverage Principles for Sustainable Organizational Change

With today’s scarcity of time, leverage is the name of the game. That is, yielding a substantial benefit from a moderate amount of effort. In my organizational change journey across a wide variety of industries, communities spanning five continents, and three decades of experience, I’ve come to know what works—and what doesn’t—when it comes to sustainable change. So here are my ten, high-leverage recommendations:

Organizational Change

Principle 1: Change the Old Leadership Paradigm

Contemporary high-leverage leadership is not about having a powerful vision and disseminating it to others so they can execute it. It’s more about having people confront their own problems and then fostering the mobilization of resources to help them achieve their group-defined directions and goals. This is a critical perspective for implementing large-scale, complex organizational changes. Be aware that altering old leadership paradigms is often easier said than done, requiring new training, mindsets, behaviors, peer support groups, and job rotations to be as successful as possible.

Principle 2: Enlist Some Allies in Achieving Your Vision

After becoming well versed in large-scale organizational change principles and methods, there’s a natural tendency to want to apply them immediately. Having witnessed them work just once or twice and seeing the sparks they ignite in people’s motivation provides a compelling reason for you to move forward quickly in your organization or community. Just be sure you enlist a coalition of people who understand the theoretical base, and who share your ideas on how traditional approaches to change and leadership need to evolve.

Principle 3: Establish a Clear Responsibility and Accountability System

Organizations ranging from command-and-control to self-managed teams (and all along the continuum between) all benefit from clear definition of responsibilities and a system that shows poor performance in time to correct it. Having crystal clear 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.

Principle 4: Have a Great Strategy and Design a Strong Strategy Structure Connection to Implement It

Get the right diversity of experience involved in planning the future. Ensure they address key areas, such as product/service offerings, consumer needs, market segments addressed, external sourcing, and distribution channels. Keep in mind that more CEOs are fired for the poor execution of a strategy than for the inability to develop a good strategy. Once a strategy is well formulated using the appropriate diversity of experience, the odds of it being successfully implemented dramatically increase when there is a specific structure designed to support it (not just an adaptation of the current structure to implement the new strategy bullet points). For example, if the organization’s new strategy calls for increased closeness to the customer, it would likely make sense to structure the organization into customer service teams instead of keeping a deep hierarchy that is functionally shoed.

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Principle 5: Build a High-Performance Structure

Organizational structures consisting of semi-autonomous teams that set and monitor their own goals can create cultures of high commitment and extraordinary performance. Unfortunately, while top leaders tend to extol the virtues of teamwork in their organization, very few commit to having a formal organizational structure comprised of teams. Many organizations do a good job of resolving the dual nature of work (cross-functional process outcomes for customers and maintenance of functional expertise) through a matrix structure, though often managing a matrix structure is challenging and remains more art than science.

Principle 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 that the middle managers have an opportunity to gather (without their managers or direct reports) and discuss issues such as boss/subordinate relationships, cross-functional improvement opportunities, communication, interdepartmental handoffs, and people development issues.

Principle 7: Practice Intelligent Empowerment

Identify which decisions might be pushed downward in an organization and accompany those with appropriate information, skills training, and rewards.

Principle 8: Institute Collective, Group Accountability (Not Just Individual)

When a group of people is accountable for setting and achieving a goal, they have a cadre of built-in coaches, supporters, and coercers that increase the likelihood of achieving a goal. Yes, there is that 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.

Principle 9: Pay Formal Attention to Culture

Culture is something that can (and should) be managed. This is true in organizations, communities, and nongovernmental organizations alike. Start by assessing culture, either with a formal tool or informal conversations. Then identify the major “from-to” areas, and methods to change ways of thinking and acting required to support the desired state. Take special note of any long-standing policies or practices that are ingrained in the organization and in people’s minds.

Principle 10: Implement Formal and Informal Practices to Compensate for the Natural Weakness of a Selected Organizational Structure

As mentioned earlier, the structure of an organization is critical to implementing a change and operating within the new parameters. Because design trade-offs must be made, every organizational structure will have weaknesses that need to be addressed. For example, those organized along functional expertise will have some cross-functional blind spots. Alternatively, structures organized by process will have people in teams whose technical skills may begin to atrophy as they focus more on process outputs than maintaining their technical expertise. Well-planned structures acknowledge inherent weakness and design to strengthen the overall organizational framework.