How to Involve an Entire Organization in Fast and Far-Reaching Change
Robert Jacobs (Author)
Publication date: 08/11/1997
Bestseller over 20,000+ copies sold
Most people consider fundamental, far-reaching and fast-paced organizational change to be a contradiction in terms, and basically impossible to make happen. Their past experience in a variety of change efforts reinforces this belief. Yet fundamental, far-reaching and fast-paced change is something that most organizations would benefit from and many need to achieve.
The factors driving this need are changing market forces, increasing customer demands for quality and service, the introduction of new technologies, and people’s desire for a greater say in shaping their own and their organization’s daily operations and future direction. “Business as usual” is no longer a viable response. Large multinational corporations and small local volunteer organizations alike are being forced to rethink basic assumptions governing their strategies, the way they organize themselves, their work processes and support systems, workforce composition and competencies, and their culture. Said another way, an organization’s capacity to change is a key factor in its short and longer term success. The most successful organizations of the future will be those that are capable of rapidly and effectively bringing about fundamental, lasting, system-wide changes.
Despite the best efforts of boards of directors, leaders, managers, and workers, organizations are failing to effectively respond to these clarion calls for change. Why, with such clear demands, do most organizations and the people in them—from leaders to front line workers and everybody in between—find themselves frustrated, still searching for concepts to guide and practices to implement really effective change? The problem is that most troublesome issues plaguing organizational change initiatives are inherent in their design. They occur because of the way in which these initiatives are commonly planned and implemented.
A look at how a typical change effort occurs sheds light on why these issues are largely unavoidable, even when the best plans are implemented flawlessly. The following scenario could occur in a wide variety of organizations raising diverse sets of issues and located anywhere around the world.
A small, select group of people regularly meet for a period of several weeks or even months, carefully crafting plans for a new and better future for their organization. They may be a strategy development or planning and policy unit, a top leadership group, a steering committee or task force. Informed by surveys, studies, and analyses, plus additional data collected from others both inside and outside of their organization, this team of highly committed and respected people forges new ground. Others, especially senior managers and maybe the board of directors, get periodic progress reports from this group and offer comments regarding the focus and direction of their work. However, in large part, the initial journey into the future is their own.
After documenting the strategy or plan, including recommendations for change that need to be made and securing senior management approval, the implementation phase begins. The plan and recommended changes are rolled out to the entire organization. The case for change is clearly communicated, necessary actions spelled out, questions asked and answered and buy-in, agreement, or compliance sought. Numerous informational meetings may be held to allay people’s concerns about the impending changes and to inform them of the new ways in which they will need to do business in the future. For some in the audience, resistance to the plan remains high; others agree with the recommendations and begin implementing them back on the job. Overall, enthusiasm for the plan exists, at best, in pockets. The organization moves into the future with some needed changes being made and others, unfortunately, being left on the drawing board. After an initial flurry of activity, eventually things pretty much return to business as usual.
The exercises illustrated in this scenario may have been a moderate success in many people’s eyes. But the result was not nearly enough considering the depth and breadth of change required for the organization to thrive in the future, let alone recouping the investment in the change effort itself. Rather than proposing minor modifications to this existing paradigm of organization change, such as adding a few more key people to one of these working groups or including a little more time to really hammer home and clarify expectations in the rollout phase, I am advocating a fundamental redesign of the way organizations change. The result of this fundamental redesign is real time strategic change, an approach that involves an entire organization in fundamental, far-reaching and fast-paced change. Let’s visit our scenario once again, but this time let’s explore it as if it were a real time strategic change effort.
Hundreds of people come together at the same place and time to address substantive organizational issues and to create their collective future. Creativity and synergy are unleashed as system-wide strategies and decisions are set in motion. These strategies and decisions are informed and considered, based on a shared view of the challenges and opportunities facing the organization, its customers’ expectations, and internal capabilities. Planning and implementation merge together as collaborative working agreements are established across levels and functions resulting in common purpose, shared goals, and renewed commitment to their organization’s future, which they themselves are creating.
People practice new ways of doing business in real time in this and in other similar large group gatherings. They leave these interactive, organization-wide events behaving differently, making different choices about how they work together and where they focus their time and energy. Change happens faster because the total organization is the “in group” that decides which changes are needed and how they can best be made. Over the long term, using this approach increases the individuals’ capacity for strategic thinking so that each person is better able to respond on a daily basis—no matter where he or she works in the organization—to other changes as they continue to emerge over time. An entire organization moves together into its future, aligned in a common strategic direction. Each person commits to how he or she can and will contribute to doing business in new ways, both during the large group meetings, immediately afterward, and on into the future.
This sounds like a tall order, and it is. But not impossible. In fact, the better part of the rest of this book outlines this innovative approach to change that my colleagues and I have developed, refined, and extended during the past decade. The result of these efforts is a set of principle-based processes and practices that are constantly being renewed and applied in different contexts. This concept of real time strategic change has been put into practice and successfully applied in diverse settings ranging from businesses, to industry, service, health care, education, government, other non-profits, and in community development. It has proven equally useful within the United States and in joint ventures between U.S. and Pacific Rim companies, as well as in Eastern and Western Europe, the Middle East, and the Far East. In addition, this way of thinking has been used to significantly accelerate the implementation of major system change efforts involving organization strategy, total quality management, work design, reengineering, cultural diversity, and community-based initiatives focused on social, political, and economic issues. Because these initiatives rarely occur in isolation from each other, we have achieved powerful synergies in many organizations through their appropriate combinations.
The two scenarios of organizational change described represent entirely different mindsets and yield substantially different results. Most organizations have tried for years to implement organization-wide changes through numerous variations on the first scenario. These small scale methods take longer, cost more—in opportunities lost, as well as in money spent—and are ultimately less effective than the large scale approach described in this book. I also believe that the design of the change effort described in the first scenario inherently contributes to why many improvement initiatives produce less than they promise and result in more “business as usual” instead of delivering what’s really needed—fast and far-reaching, system-wide change.
Life cycles of products, technology, services and processes continue to get shorter. Despite people’s best efforts, it is clear that many organizations are falling behind the power curve of change that exists worldwide. We may feel capable of supporting, managing, and leading change efforts in small teams of ten or even twenty people; however, many organizations are comprised of hundreds or even hundreds of thousands of people. This sheer size and the scope of the changes required leave those committed to leading positive, directed change efforts quietly resigned to the limitations of approaches they currently possess. The need to build clarity, commitment, and collaboration across an entire organization is a critical component of any change effort. However, most people’s experiences suggest that meeting this need is more wishful thinking than a deliverable result. Unfortunately, many change efforts confirm this suspicion by falling out as too little too late, being too limited or incremental in scope, or by categorically being referred to as outright failures by their architects, implementers, and those ultimately affected by the proposed changes.
Four Common Approaches to Organization Change
Over the years I have listened to people from all levels and in all kinds of organizations vent their frustrations about how “the system” normally operates and how difficult (or even impossible) it has proven to bring about change in the status quo. In reflecting on what I’ve seen in many different organizations, I categorize these less than satisfying experiences into four common approaches.
The first of these generic approaches is what could be referred to as a top-down strategy in which an organization’s leadership team decides which changes need to be made. In most organizations using this approach, brief large group meetings are held in which leaders explain why new ways of doing business are needed and what will be required from people in the organization to successfully bring about this particular set of changes. Other less participation minded organizations following a top-down philosophy issue substantive business changes through the publication and distribution of strategic plans, task force reports and executive memos. In top-down organizations, the desired changes are rarely crystal clear to everyone, even those prepared to listen; the commitment and collaboration required for effective implementation are also often missing. Likewise, a key to putting those changes into practice—people feeling personal ownership for making them successful—is lacking because most of the people who need to do things differently have neither been consulted nor involved in the process of deciding which changes need to be made.
Bottom-up strategies are another avenue for organizations to follow in bringing about change. In these scenarios, individual teams of front-line workers are accountable for making changes in the way they themselves do business. Borne out of the empowerment movement of the 1980s, teams using this approach largely end up working independently of each other, crafting innovative solutions to their own most pressing problems. This approach usually results in a satisfying, short-run experience with major improvements being made and good results achieved by many of the individual teams; however, the gains for one team are often at the expense of another and the long-term headaches for the entire enterprise usually remain. In most cases, either a lack of overall strategic direction and/or adequate system-wide coordination between these internally-focused teams overshadows any incremental progress that is achieved. Commitment is much higher with this approach than a top-down strategy. However, lacking an overall context and without collaboration across the entire system, success is limited to good solutions to only those problems which exist exclusively within separate functions, areas, or levels—a small part of the universe of issues confronting most organizations.
A third generic approach to change involves recruiting representative cross-sections of the actual people ultimately affected by proposed changes to help decide which changes are necessary and how they can most effectively be implemented. This collection of people is often convened by consultants and has become known by names such as task forces, working groups, diagonal slice groups, subcommittees, parallel organizations, and by other special names in different organizations with different cultures. These groups gain an extensive understanding of the overall context of the change effort, develop a deep and genuine commitment to their cause, and provide a model of collaboration with representatives from other parts of the organization that they have long held in disdain. Coordination issues for the entire enterprise get worked through in these cross-section groups as members are encouraged to keep a big picture perspective throughout the process. However, these results are likely enjoyed by only the few people most directly involved in the task force’s work. The problem with this approach is that many other people throughout the rest of the organization are never meaningfully involved in the process, don’t understand the changes themselves or why they are needed. Furthermore, they don’t view the cross-section group as representative since it’s been so long since they have been around the real work that they’ve lost touch with reality. Because of these dynamics, most people’s ownership of and commitment to their organization’s change efforts are understandably lacking.
A fourth common method is to identify a specific part of the total organization as the flagship or leader for change. Sometimes referred to as pilots, these change efforts benefit from having a well-defined task, the attention and support of organization leaders, and the allocation of resources required to ensure success. The people within the part of the organization selected to participate in the pilot project are involved closely in the planning and implementation of change. The results of their efforts are often showcased throughout the entire organization. However, even when measurable improvements have been achieved and communicated, it proves difficult to transfer these new ways of doing business to other parts of the organization. The “not invented here” syndrome gets in the way of other groups adopting what appear to be reasonable recommendations and suggestions for improvement. Some so-called “resisters” may believe they have even better ideas than those developed by the pilot group, whereas others may resent not being chosen to participate; still others maintain that their circumstances are unique, they are nothing like the pilot group’s, and that none of the solutions are applicable to them. As people in the pilot area continue to make progress toward a future they find exciting and rewarding (sometimes even accompanied by a potentially more lucrative pay scale than other groups enjoy), the gulf separating them from the rest of the organization continues to expand. Infighting, coordination issues at hand-off points between the old and new parts of the organization, and sometimes even sabotage lead to a less effective change effort overall.
Typical Results From Common Approaches to Change Efforts
One or more of the following results typically occurs when applying these above approaches to major organizational change efforts. When taken together, they conspire to render even the best-laid plans and initiatives ineffective.
Less Informed and Ultimately, Less Effective Change Efforts
Each person has a unique view of their organization’s reality—what’s working, what’s not working, what are the pressing external issues, and what changes they believe need to be made to ensure its future success. A small group of people working together, even when combining their individual perspectives, never sees a complete picture of an organization’s reality. Leadership teams are distanced from day-to-day issues on the front lines. Workers do not have access to broad-based strategic information. People in different functions, departments, sections, and work groups suffer from gaps in knowledge regarding each other’s challenges and opportunities. Small groups face three potential traps in the methods they most commonly employ to support organizational change initiatives. The first and potentially most dangerous option is for the group to ignore the fact that their views represent only a partial window on the world of their organization. Less information in many endeavors leads to greater risk. This maxim holds true for organizational change efforts as well. Not involving more people in planning changes reinforces people’s beliefs that their narrow, fragmented views of reality are accurate and complete—a potentially costly and disastrous assumption.
A second option is to make assumptions regarding the thoughts and ideas of those not able to participate. This choice reflects a more considered path than the first, because people realize they need more information than they themselves possess. However, as more and more of these assumptions are made, each based on the previous set of assumptions, errors in judgment grow exponentially and the collective view of reality becomes less reliable.
A third path is for the team to expand its information base through interviews, surveys, or by actually having other members of the organization, content experts, or representatives from benchmarked organizations join them for certain parts of the process. Although including additional information as part of their thinking makes for stronger recommendations, this reaching out is often a one-time affair in an ongoing process. The small group is still charged with the ultimate interpretation of these learnings and how they apply to their organization’s unique challenges and opportunities. This leaves many potential responses not considered simply because less people exploring possibilities and their subsequent implications leads to less informed decisions.
Issues arising from having only a narrow or fragmented information base are not confined to the planning phase of a change effort—they also show up during implementation as well. Though real consensus is not a common phenomenon in most organizations, I have discovered that there is one issue on which every organization agrees. Poor communication is always mentioned near the top of the “hit list” of organization problems. However, a more substantive issue underlies the lack of communication. Without good information, people can’t make informed decisions. Another repeating cycle emerges …
Some leaders don’t trust their people to make wise decisions regarding implementation efforts so they keep these decisions to themselves. Other more progressive leaders give their people a chance to make these decisions, but don’t have the means or systems to provide them with the information and understanding required to make informed decisions on an ongoing basis. Pushing decisions down to lower levels in an organization while keeping strategic information privy to only the top levels is a sure-fire way to cripple any change effort. There are enlightened leaders who realize that not only are their people ill-equipped to make strategic decisions regarding implementation, but that they themselves do not have all the information they need to make the right decisions at their level. In all these cases, leaders, workers, and ultimately customers lose. Let me be quick to point out, however, that this is not a new dilemma for organizations, as illustrated by the following statement Thomas Jefferson made on September 28, 1820.
“I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves, and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion.”
This answer of informing discretion has been clear for the past 170-odd years. What has been missing in most organizations, is the means to bring it about.
A Few People Try to Convince Many That Change Is Needed
Everyone who has taken part in any change effort recognizes the importance of securing buy-in from key players who can make or break the initiative. In real terms, buy-in translates into commitment to and actions supportive of, intended changes. Succeeding on this issue is a tough challenge because most members of organizations have seen what they describe as “flavor of the month” change efforts unveiled in their organizations for years, with few measurable results achieved for the organization or themselves.
In so doing, we have all colluded in creating organizations filled with appropriately cautious, skeptical people. An inevitable trap evolves in this scenario: everybody waits for somebody else to make needed changes before they sign up for the latest program. They think, “This way I’ll be sure it’s the real thing so I won’t get suckered in like I did the last time!” Still others who are more experienced lie low, hoard resources, reinforce the status quo in every way they can and assume an attitude of “We can wait this one out, too.” In these organizations, change becomes something to avoid, instead of something to embrace. In either case, substantial progress can’t be achieved until those leading the change effort successfully sign these other two groups of people up for the cause. In terms of the larger organization, these dynamics create an unproductive standoff resulting in no winners, only losers.
A Partial Responsibility Mindset
By breaking change efforts into their component parts either by function, level, process, or through involving only a small, representative cross-section of the organization, few people end up feeling and being responsible for the total organization’s change effort. Therefore, more loose ends occur, hand offs often slip through the cracks, and insufficient time and energy is devoted to ensuring adequate integration across multiple portions of the change effort. The end result: changes will not be effectively implemented. The status quo prevails once again.
However, organizations do not stop paying the costs of this partial responsibility mindset when change efforts begin to falter. Evidence of this can be seen in how blame is attributed for failed or failing change efforts. Those involved in planning changes claim they have done their part well only to have those in charge of implementation drop the ball. Implementation teams argue that their shortcomings can be traced directly to poor planning. In other cases the debate is focused hierarchically, with people blaming the lack of success on poor leadership, uncommitted middle management, or a resistant workforce. Still other organizations prefer to pin blame on particular departments, such as marketing, engineering, finance, or any number of other culprits. Sometimes specific work groups, historical precedents, cultural folklore, or even a sole individual are cited as responsible for the failed change effort.
In each approach, cause is attributed as if there were a single problem that could be isolated. This mentality suggests that if we could find the one broken part of the organization and fix it, all would be well. The complicating factor in this scenario is that each “part” believes it is some other “part” that is broken. Nobody takes ownership for their own contribution to the problem. Any sense of teamwork or collaboration falls by the wayside as people run for cover, preparing their own “not guilty” pleas and “closing arguments” for their blame of others.
In these situations, “we-they” infighting takes precedence over making change efforts successful. Perhaps it is safer to wage internal intellectual battles that assess primary and secondary responsibility for lack of progress than to risk moving together as an organization into an uncertain world of change. Certainly the outcome of the former option is more predictable. However, changes in how organizations do business are required. Arguing about who or what is to blame for why they have not been made does little to affect an organization’s future in positive ways.
Change Occurs Sequentially
This issue poses a particularly significant challenge in larger organizations which are often unwieldy institutions, sometimes with several identifiable businesses with nothing obvious in common, and comprised of thousands of individuals. Many people believe committed change efforts and innovative breakthroughs occur best in smaller teams—they’re easier to communicate with, manage, and support. However, successfully bringing about change in a large organization requires that a great many individuals and small teams change in similar ways at the same time.
Through the years, consultants and management specialists of all types have compounded this problem by identifying work groups with a maximum size of 15–25 people as the targets for most change initiatives, education, development, or training. From a broader perspective, successfully creating these highly effective, small teams ensures failure of change efforts at the macro level. No single small group has all the data required to make informed decisions on the part of the whole organization. Therefore each decision made in a small group meeting increases the likelihood that people are maximizing the results achieved by their part of the organization, but intrinsically sub-optimizes the performance of the entire enterprise.
Whether they reside at the top, middle, bottom, or in a representative cross-section of an organization, people in these pockets often get discouraged when the whole system is not supportive of their change efforts. Sometimes these very committed, small groups end up working at cross-purposes to each other. In any case, resulting frustrations decrease momentum and people in these pockets of change end up feeling like they’re always against the odds—which in reality, they are.
Change Is Perceived as a Disruption to “Real Work”
Despite the numerous books; articles in management journals, business newspapers, and magazines; videos; training courses; and how-to manuals devoted to the topic of change, many people still believe that change is negative and that it happens in their organization only between times when they’re doing their real work. It is an additional task or responsibility called for only in particular situations or circumstances—a disruption to stability, to the status quo. Even people who recognize and believe that uncertainty and ambiguity are now a constant part of their organizational lives separate the notion of change from their day-to-day work. However, real work is not something to get back to after you have finished changing in some way. These days, change is an integral part of people’s real work in organizations.
A small percentage of people thrive on change, and even sometimes create or contribute to it out of an innate preference or even sense of adventure. But for the vast majority, challenging long-held assumptions and shifting well-honed patterns of behavior proves to be a difficult and uncomfortable undertaking. Because of the unpredictable nature of change, people generally view it as a necessary evil, or worse yet, something to survive. Productivity and quality levels often drop when new ways of doing business are introduced into an organization mainly because people are focusing a lot of their time and energy on coping and dealing with their reactions to change, not on the organization’s “real work.” Conversely those periods designated for “real work” (i.e., not for changing) may lead to short-term successes in productivity and quality, but ongoing improvement efforts suffer for a lack of attention and focus. In either case, these artificial barriers between change and real work lead to less effectiveness and poorer overall results than if their inseparability was embraced and dealt with directly.
The Pace of Change Is Too Slow
Even when change efforts appear to be making progress, new ways of doing business just are not happening fast enough. Consultants, or other outsiders, may highlight progress achieved, but it either seems trivial in scope or even nonexistent to those who live in the organization on a daily basis. Too many potentially effective change efforts lose momentum and commitment because nobody on the inside notices successful changes that have been made in small pockets of the organization. Perhaps most sobering, if people inside the system do not notice that change is occurring, important stakeholders on the outside such as customers and suppliers are likely not to notice either.
In this scenario, momentum becomes an organizational aspiration rather than a catalyst to further change efforts. People’s commitment wanes as progress becomes difficult to discern. In a world of increasingly fast-paced change, slow-paced responses only serve to dig organizations into a deeper hole. The worst case scenario takes one of two forms. In one all-too-familiar example, changes stack up on people’s plates before they can effectively digest previous helpings. In another even more disconcerting scenario, new strategies are institutionalized so slowly that they lose their relevance even before they have been fully implemented. Rapid and continuing shifts in an organization’s environment coupled with the methods described in these four common approaches to change practically ensures that organizations and the people in them remain one step behind the times.
Substantial Change in Part or Modest Change in an Entire Organization
Opting for one of the four common approaches to change described earlier often means choosing between substantial changes being made in part of an organization or limited changes being made across the board. Small group methods are most effective when applied to a target group of up to around twenty people, and when the implications are minimal for the rest of the organization. Although some change efforts may be highly successful on the local level, they often fail to contribute much to the success of the rest of the organization because of a lack of surrounding support. Interdependencies between functions, layers, departments, and work teams should be high for optimal performance, whether people acknowledge this or not. The effectiveness of small-scale approaches is inversely proportional to the number of people ultimately affected by any changes being made: the more people affected, the less useful these means are in effecting lasting change.
On the other hand, as people in an organization become further removed from being able to influence changes that affect them, their understanding of, commitment to, and ownership of these changes decreases commensurately. What results from this is more modest change, dispersed across a wider area. Examples of this dynamic can be seen when senior executives announce key strategic changes to their entire organization through memos or formal briefings, or even “town hall” meetings. Even when common understanding is gained through these approaches—and that is a rare occurrence—substantial organization-wide changes seldom ensue. Simply put, information sharing and common understanding do not automatically translate into ownership and commitment to making change happen.
The compromise stated in the title of this section is explicit. There is no way around it. Common approaches to change force an “either-or” choice, with neither option being desirable. Although mindsets and methods that enable substantial change to be made across an entire organization are much sought after, they still prove elusive.
From “Business as Usual” to Real Time Strategic Change
Organizations need a better way of changing, a means for involving large percentages of their people in making the shift from a “business as usual” scenario to one of real time strategic change. In a real time strategic change scenario, all members of the organization are meaningfully involved in deciding upon and responsible for delivering the organization’s results. Interactive large group events form the foundation of this approach. At its essence, real time strategic change is about a new way of understanding organizations, how they operate, the role individual people can play in making a difference in their organizational lives, and how collectively they can get ahead of the “power curve” of change facing organizations of all sorts worldwide.
It is a bold undertaking to bring together hundreds of people at the same place and time with diverse knowledge and experience bases, sometimes competing needs, and each with single pieces of a large and complex jigsaw puzzle we call reality. (My colleagues and I have succeeded with groups as large as 2,200 people.) Having them leave aligned with each other and as a total organization, motivated, and empowered is a powerful result.
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