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7 conditions for successful organizational change

7 Conditions for Successful Organizational Change

  • 15 September 2016
  • Posted by Marcella Bremer

Do you know that culture is one of the main reasons for the huge failure rate of organizational change? In my first assignment, fresh out of university, I presented a plan with the “best” solution to a particular organization’s problem. I remember the board meeting where the top executives agreed on this plan. Great! But they never implemented it... My hard work ended up in a drawer. It didn’t fit their priorities, their personalities, their culture.

Culture entails what your organization values and believes, and it determines the way people “do things around here.” You can’t order people to change their beliefs and daily behaviors because they are deeply embedded.

Deep Change

Organizational change is a deep group effort. There’s no shortcut. You have to engage people to dig up some of these collective values, meanings, and assumptions that drive daily behaviors. You have to sort what you need and dump what you don’t. You’ll have to practice new behaviors together and reinforce them. Learn from mistakes, adjust, and support each other. If you don’t - people might go back to business as usual and you’ll have wasted time and money. Culture eats strategy for breakfast: If you don’t work with culture, the culture will work you over.

Culture eats…your plan?

Culture killed my first professional advice. I’d been taught to analyze problems, keep an academic perspective, and research and present the best solution. All the client had to do, was implement it. I was educated as an organizational expert. I had done just that - but to no avail. They were polite to my face. Maybe they even meant it, when they nodded in agreement. But, somehow, it didn’t resonate with them. Apparently, no lasting energy was activated, no motivation mobilized, no enthusiasm garnered to make this solution work in this organization.

I felt utterly frustrated, and it launched my search for ways to achieve successful, lasting change. During the next 25 years, I tried this and that, I read books, took courses, and developed the Change Circles approach that starts with Organizational Culture before changing anything else (as described in my book Organizational Culture Change). I also learned that my first experience was quite common. As a fellow consultant said to me: “Your Organizational Culture Change book was intriguing as I saw my own consulting journey experienced through someone else’s eyes.”

In my book, I summarized the conditions I discovered to achieve lasting change in the 7C Framework of Successful Change that goes with this post.

Commitment, also to personal change

The top executives need to be committed, not only to the change and its expected gains but to personal change as well. They must be so committed that they are willing to change themselves and endure the discomfort of adopting new habits.

Clarity

Without clarity, efforts tend to diversify, diffuse and confuse. We need to know where we are, where we want to be, and why we have to move now.

Consensus

Consensus fuels commitment. The CEO can’t change 1,000 others, not even 10 of them. He or she can try to influence them, and role model the change she wants to see. But if not enough others change their behaviors nothing will change in the organization as a whole. You can only achieve true consensus in small teams or “change circles”. Nothing will really change in a large auditorium where the CEO tells others what to change. People will have to go deeper: explore the why, the what, the how, the who, the why-now, before they may agree to customize and apply the proposed change to their daily situation. It takes dialogue, reflection, objections, what-ifs, and changing some beliefs or assumptions.Chariot of Change

Communicate

Communicate, have dialogues, ask, explain, and exchange. True communication creates meaning and connection. Aim for understanding, respect, and confidence to make change happen. Communicate and support each other in small teams. You can never communicate enough.

Copy and coach consistently

Respond to all behaviors all the time - this is a major leadership skill that seems to be often lacking. Utilize the copy mechanism in groups: people will do what you do. Be the change you want to see on the team. Be consistent and the change will become clear. People might check if you are for real. Small behaviors can have a huge impact. Consistently keep doing it: copy, coach, and, if needed, correct. Organize the change in small teams of people who support each other to anchor new behaviors.

Create critical mass

If the behaviors are spreading through the organizational system, you are on the right track. Reach critical mass when enough people are displaying the new behaviors which make it compelling and “normal” for everyone to do so, even for the ones who resisted so far.

Carry on

Last but not least: keep up the good work. The minute you let go is the minute people are tempted to go back to old habits and rest in their comfort zones. Help them through the “messy middle” of change to a happy ending, when “new” has become “normal.”

Since I created this 7C Framework, I’ve gained more insights, and I could extend this checklist for successful change further, but let’s leave it at this for the moment. Let’ see what additions you can come up with: please share them below in the comments!

By the way, if you like this list make sure to check out my eBook: How to lead Positive Change with Culture and Positive Leadership. This eBook shows how change can succeed. Read this before you start any change or new goal to prepare yourself.... 

Summarized, I discovered that successful change is “deep” and often comes with these three characteristics:

  • Bottom-up and inclusive: Engage everyone 
  • Personal and collective change (in a team, in an organization) at the same time
  • Focused on specific, daily behaviors
  • Allowing for emergence, non-linear effects and the network nature of an organizational system

In my next post, I’ll share my list of what is not working well in (organizational) change. But for now, what can you take away from my experience? Even when you are not a consultant or leader, you have encountered a change in many contexts: at work and home, in different roles.

  1. Can you share a successful change experience and identify some of its success factors?
  2. How can you apply the above insights to a current situation you want to change?
  3. Which one speaks to you most?

I’m looking forward to your responses!

Copyright © Marcella Bremer 2016. All rights reserved.