10 Steps to Successful Organizational Change

By Donn DiNunno

(Back to article)

Since the Tower of Babel, large organizational changes have had a tendency to fall apart during implementation. Even with modern engineering methods and technologies only about 1-in-3 of organizational change initiatives survive beyond their initial implementation.

So can anything be done to improve the odds and avoid costly failures? Yes, here are some steps to change the trend and save you from losing critical momentum as you work to mature your organization’s value and performance:

1. Planning must be proportional: Big changes need plans that are commensurate with the effort. Some people may say, “Just do it!” but exuberant activity without the necessary focus is a waste of energy. Planning has a secondary benefit -- people prepare for a change when they see or are involved in the planning activities. Plans pre-condition people to move toward a desired future state.

2. Short-cuts rarely are: Don’t expect “quick hits” or sudden uniformity. Participants will experience frustration and ambiguity during the early stages. Let the things that come easily be the impetus for real change. Otherwise, it may be just as easy to revert to the old ways.

3. Establish building blocks: Foundational tools and processes such as root cause analysis and risk management create a participative management style that builds trust. These modular building blocks must be in place for an effective organizational change initiative to be fully adopted and adapted to your organization.

4. Allow multiple views: Everyone may not agree on the priority of the forces driving change (e.g., competition, customer demands, legislation, economic changes, etc.), but the impact of these forces must translate into a coherent strategy where each participant is “rowing in the same general direction." A common set of outcomes should be clearly established.

5. Change is organic: Don’t implement change from the top-down. Change is best developed from within an organization, not imposed by management. While limited participation can initiate a change, broad participation is needed soon after the start to carry the momentum to a successful end. It is always helpful when management sets a good example, but changes imposed by edicts usually result in changes that aren’t the ones intended.

6. Link behaviors to goals: Consider the unintended consequences of these established outcomes. For example, if a goal is established to reduce the IT cost per user then don’t be surprised when the metric is reported as succeeding while costs go up! The unintended consequence may be that more users are covered in those IT costs (with poorer service or reduced performance), but the ratio of costs per user is indeed less.

Change is not about comfort. It comes with a price, and that price should be evaluated from multiple perspectives to determine the likely impact and the desired new behaviors.

7. Frame the change: Successful change strategies involve an intricate understanding of change enablers and drivers (e.g., goals such as commitment to customer satisfaction; a vision that is either shared or consistently supported; transformational leadership that facilitates change rather than imposing control; a decision-making process that empowers the workforce; individual development; purpose; and incentives that encourage teamwork.) A holistic roadmap is both a good planning tool and a way of reporting progress.

8. Follow-up on small improvements: People need reinforcement especially when they are being asked to perform outside their comfort zones. Initial dips in productivity or missed targets are typical and how management deals with the outliers during the period of stabilization is important if they want people to continue striving for improvement.

The attitude that lessons learned are an investment in individuals rather than a spot on their permanent record is an important aspect of team building. Getting and giving feedback is a best practice.

9. Change is not for everyone: Some people may not successfully transition to the new environment. They may hold fast to the previous ways that made them successful in the past or just not be willing to being retrained.

Separating out the parts of the puzzle that don’t fit as the roadmap is implemented is a delicate operation, but necessary for the organization to complete the journey. Also, the people who led the change may not be the best people to hold the gains and sustain the new practices. Establishing career plans is part of No.1 Planning.

10. Even though there is 10 of them, it’s not a 10-step program: Finally, there are no sure-fire "Ten steps to success" when attempting an enterprise-wide organizational change. Each organization is different and what works well for one may not apply to your organization. In fact, each change within your organization is different from previous changes. Some people may be ready to do it again -- only better -- and others may be stretched to the limit and need time to re-establish a comfortable baseline.

If one or more of these rules is ignored will your change fail? Well, you’ve heard about failing to plan (No.1) that habits take time to become permanent (No.2), and certainly without a proper foundation (No.3) any engineering feat is unsound. And, yes, a few saboteurs (No.9) can sink the boat.

Yet, the degree of complexity of your roadmap (No.7), participative style (No.5), linkage from behaviors to goals (No.6) and understanding of underlying forces (No.4 and No.8) are areas that can be refined as the change is implemented.

Even the Tower of Babel succeeded in end.

Donn DiNunno is quality director at EM&I, whose consultants specialize in the areas of strategy, governance, and engineering.