What Leads to True Organizational Change?

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A 2-hour meeting does not. A 2-day training does not. Leadership development focused on only individual change will help that leader reach his/her individual goals, but it will not directly lead to organizational change.

Organizational change occurs over time, with a consistent focus on implementation and evaluation at each step of the way, and often with a team of the right people who can support both the initial start-up as well as the ability to sustain the new approach.

Organizational change requires more than just attending a conference or training. To make sustainable change requires a knowledge of how to apply what you learned practically to your specific organizational culture and context. It also requires accountability (who is responsible for what? Does everyone know that? Are we checking up on that?). 

Think about a family as an example. The parent says to the children, “From now on, you will need to wash your own dishes and clean your room and only watch 30 minutes of TV instead of 2 hours.”

Do you think those kids follow those rules automatically with no further follow-up? If you are a parent you are probably laughing (or pained) at the thought of how difficult it is to make family organizational changes. 

Now what if in addition to asking them to make these changes, you described the instructions step-by-step? Would that help? Perhaps a little.

Now, what if you also showed them how and then watched them implement the change, evaluated their work, and give them feedback one time?

How about if you did that several times, each time tweaking your feedback to improve the final outcome and efficiency of the operation?

One thing you come to quickly learn is that there were barriers to completing those chores. Perhaps your younger child couldn’t reach some of the dishes at the bottom of the sink and thus couldn’t complete the task as it was set up. Perhaps your older child needed more instruction on how to organize the things in his room in the most efficient manner. 

Organizational change is no different. The leaders who are most effective at not only implementing change in their organizations but making it stick are the ones who can apply behavioral change principles to organizational outcomes. 

Now think about your own work life. Let’s say the IT department announced they will migrate to a new online email system to allow for a larger amount of space to save information on the cloud and that the navigation will be easier but will require some training. The old email system will still be available but eventually phased out at some later unknown date.

A small percentage of employees will automatically change to the new system because they are always the “early adopters” of new technologies. But the rest of us will wait until the training is mandatory to take it, and then wait until the transition to the new system is forced upon us. And we will keep using the old system for as long as possible!

In this scenario, most of the steps for implementation were set up well, but the accountability piece was missing: we were allowed to keep doing things the way they had been done with no consequence for choosing to wait or not switch over. 

Ultimately, accountability, team supporters, a plan of initial action for implementation, an ongoing evaluation of outcomes (with routine tweaks as needed) are required for organizational change to be successful.