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Why We Need To Rethink Organizational Change Management

via Forbes: Welcome to my first post in this column dedicated to presenting big ideas by bold thinkers that help us reimagine organizational change in new ways. If you want to produce change in the world and wonder how good organizational design can facilitate this change, then this column is for you.

All organizations must grapple with change, yet many conventional models of organizational change management leave me dissatisfied. I recently revisited some classic texts on change management and a few of them reminded me of Sleeping Beauty. Do you remember the fairy tale?

Under a spell, the princess, her family and all the household serfs have fallen into a deep one-hundred-year sleep. An impenetrable thicket of thorns has grown over the castle and isolates it from the surrounding world. Until a handsome prince in shining armor rides in on a magnificent horse. Wielding his splendid sword, he cuts through the thorns with mighty strokes, and with a kiss on the princess’ lips, he wakens her and everybody else!

The analogies with the fairy tale become more apparent if we consider the playbook offered by some traditional and still influential models of organizational change. It goes something like this:

  • Successful change initiatives start at the top. Make sure the CEO is a fully invested champion who creates a burning platform to create a strong sense of urgency. Set up a top-level team of experts, reporting directly to the CEO, tasked with developing a focused vision and strategy for change that can be communicated in no more than five minutes and is simple enough for all employees to understand.
  • Cascade the plan down every layer of hierarchy. Mobilize middle management to drive the change through the organization. Make sure employees grasp their role in implementing the vision and are fully on board. Win employees’ hearts and inculcate them with a change-centric mind-set by communicating vision and strategy relentlessly, using every available channel. There is no such thing as too much communication.
  • Reinforce the change. Create accountability by monitoring results. Reward and celebrate those who demonstrate desired behaviors. Anticipate and address resistance to change from the start. Employees love to stay in their comfort zone. Help them to get out and embrace new ways of doing things. Silence naysayers and remove obstinate resisters.

My gut tells me something is off with this model. McKinsey estimates that 70 % of change programs fail to achieve their goals, in large part due to employee resistance. Other studies come to similar findings. If a handful of people resist, maybe something is wrong with the people. If broad resistance from employees continuously topples change programs, then maybe it is not the people that need fixing, it’s the change model. Here are my concerns:

  • The traditional change model views top-management as sole originator of change ideas. Employees are construed merely as auxiliary implementers. Right off the bat, the vast pool of insights from employees into how the organization can be improved falls by the wayside.
  • Employees must fear that raising concerns or proposing alternatives one too many times will earn them the perilous brand of “resister”. How can openness to creativity or change possibly thrive in an environment where divergent thinking is punished?
    The model emphasizes steadfast commitment from leadership to stay the course in the face of adversity. Insulating a project from critical feedback looks like a recipe for failing late and failing big. Instead, the design of complex solutions that work requires an iterative process of design/build/test/repeat. This ensures that flaws are detected and improved in a timely manner and that learning and adaptation can occur.
  • The traditional model views change management as an intermittent project, with a discrete beginning and end, addressing one or two big-ticket items, such as restructuring the organization or implementing a new IT system. Upon completion, the organization will fall back into its 100-year slumber, until management forces through the next project. As Carl Rogers put it, true change is a process, not a state of being. It has a direction, but there is no destination. From this perspective, the role of change managers is less to push through discrete change projects, but rather to design the organization in a way that enables continuous adaptation to an ever evolving environment.
  • The traditional change model advocates for generating employee buy-in by maximizing communication and contingent reinforcement (carrots & sticks). Behavioral research shows that these coercive tactics are likely to trigger the very resistance the traditional change management model purports to address. Pushing against employee resistance with contingent reinforcement is an adjustment to symptoms rather than causes, and a counterproductive one at that.

These flaws of the traditional change management model are themselves a symptom of a larger problem. Many organizations are simply not set up for agile change. While managers are busy relentlessly communicating about the change imperative, the design of many organizations slants the playing field toward controllability, stability, routinization, risk-avoidance, zero-tolerance for error, or deference to authority. It’s like pushing the accelerator and the breaks at the same time. The result is friction, fatigue, and cynicism. If we push change onto an organization that is built for stability, nothing good will come of it. Pushing harder won’t do the trick. If, instead, we get the organization ready for change, we must worry about resistance much less.

“There’s a way to do it better – find it.” This was the motto of Thomas Edison, one of the greatest inventors to ever live. This blog seeks to honor his credo by presenting big ideas that help us think about organizational change in new ways. In the spirit of creative recombination, I will liberally forage far and wide for insights old and new, from diverse scientific disciplines (psychology, economics, philosophy, etc.) and dissimilar professional practices (e.g., design, marketing, organizational development), and then discuss the application of these ideas to organizational change.

Here is a preview of the ideas presented in the next few posts:

  • Everybody Is A Change Agent: Bandura On Agency. McGregor On Theory Y
  • Busting The Bureaucratic Iron Cage: How To Win Support For Change. Weber On The Bureaucratic Iron Cage. Norman And Brown On Human-Centered Design. Deci And Ryan On Motivation.
  • Co-Creative Platforms Mobilize Employees’ Ideas For Organizational Change: Ramaswamy And Gouillart On Co-Creation, IDEO On Innovation Platforms
  • Gentle Nudges Can Produce Big Changes: Sunstein And Thaler On Nudges
  • Bye-Bye, Heroic Leadership. Here Comes Shared Leadership: Fletcher And Käufer On Post-Heroic Leadership. Gray, Brown And Macanufu On Skillful Facilitation

Recurrent readers will pick up a leitmotiv connecting the big ideas presented here. My curation of featured books and articles will be guided by the premise that the capacity for creativity and problem solving is vastly distributed across populations. The ideas featured in forthcoming blog posts help organizations get ready for change, by designing a context that supports employees’ active contribution to organizational change. The blog will discuss methods for integrating employees’ ingenuity into every stage of the organizational change process, and for supporting employees in initiating their own projects. The ideas presented in this series help drive organizational change at scale, by making it more inclusive and continuous. In contemporary parlance, this blog series will advance a crowd-sourcing approach to organizational change.

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