Organizational Change – It Really Comes Down to Two Things

Organizational Change

Amy Swenson recently asked a question in the Human Resources (HR) & Talent Management group regarding why over 70% of organizational change initiatives fail and if anyone has a methodology that works.

It’s a great question. However, the answers are not a secret. Some great books have been written on the topic.

So why have the statistics not changed that much?

Organizations are systems perfectly designed to create their current results.

Let that sink in for a moment.

Organizations are systems — systems of people, processes, and tools. Those people have an acceptable or standard way of interacting with one another called “culture.” They have ways of interacting with their processes and tools called “Standard Operating Procedures.” Each of these has it’s own inertia. The longer the organization has been around, the more inertia it has. Remember Jim Collin’s flywheel from Good to Great? This is the flywheel.

Another analogy I like to use is an aircraft carrier. It is a huge piece of machinery. It requires a massive staff to maintain and run. Roles are clearly defined in a nice kanban manner through uniforms and vest colors. Operating procedures are highly rehearsed and executed with fine precision.

People inside and outside the organization have adapted to survive in the system of your organization. They understand how to navigate the nuances of the organization’s culture and operating procedures, and the organization reinforces their behaviors through lack of punishment and sometimes reward.

Most change initiatives in organizations are the equivalent of ramming the side of that aircraft carrier with a rowboat. There is little if any noticeable impact on the carrier and it just about kills the people in the rowboat.

I’ve worked with dozens of organizations across my 20-year career. Whether a change initiative succeeded or failed, I noticed the reasons fell into two buckets — Lack of Clarity and Lack of Organizational Reinforcement. You will notice that the second contributes to the first.

Organizational clarity starts with a cohesive leadership team. By “cohesive” I mean a leadership team with no air gaps between them regarding the purpose, behaviors, and objectives of the organization. If the leadership team is not on the same page and committed, then their is no hope for the organization.

Once the leadership team is on the same page, then they can engage the proper stakeholders and create clarity around what is changing, why it is changing, and when it is changing. This part is not too difficult.

However, this next step is where many organizations stumble. Remember the system? We’ve now got to modify the system to reinforce the change. This may mean that some people that just won’t get on board after much listening and coaching need to go. That’s tough when it’s someone you like or an otherwise great employee. It definitely means that reward systems and processes need to be revamped to be aligned to reinforce the change. It also means that there need to be reinforcement mechanisms in place to inspect the new process and disciplinary action steps to handle non-compliance.

If that sounds hard, it is. Change is difficult. That’s why most organizations fail at it.

By the way, I still have not shared with you the two keys to success in change transformation. While the things I mentioned are critical, it really comes down to this: uncommon discipline and persistence.

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