management, organization, technology

Can’t change your organization? Handle your wrench differently


Organizational change is at the core of managing organizations in a constantly reshaping environment. While the world has become increasingly more volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous (i.e. a VUCA world), we are still struggling with the same basic facts of organizational change: it is hard to ignite, and then even harder to control.

It’s not that we have not developed new ideas on how to come to terms with these processes in a constant attempt to support managers. We can recognize at least three big shifts:

  1. We moved from the idea of a top down change, through top-down planning, and massive turnover and downsizing, to bottom-up change through Organizational Development
  2. We abandoned the idea that change was motivated by needs, and fostered the importance of desire through appreciative inquiry and positive organizational scholarship
  3. We realized that change is usually occurring notwithstanding us, instead of being a product of management action.

While these have been tremendous advancement in the way we conceptualize change, they are not helping us in dealing with the unprecedented flow of change deriving from the globalized economy, and the network society.

In a project I am supervising, a large consumer company is targeting customer centricity, while attempting at breaking down the silos of its various Business Units. The efforts up to now have targeted traditional views of change, by implementing far fetching change processes like lean six sigma, and deploying them at the global level. It is not that they aren’t working, but they provide much needed, but limited fixes. Out of this limited benefit, the company has asked us to support a completely different change process in a drive to implement a Digital Transformation.

As I am partnering with OpenKnowledge, we are using their Social business toolkit. The toolkit is a phenomenal roadmap, which helps in identifying all the relevant issues involved in a digital transformation. My learning in the process, though, is that a key add-on to the toolkit is the need to embrace a completely different perspective on which forces trigger and sustain change.

Traditionally, change has been powered by using an imaginary wrench with its jaw on the CEO and Key People in the organization (to put pressure on top managers and BU leaders). The CEO provided much needed legitimacy, while younger and ambitious employees provided competencies, skills, and energy.

In today’s world this way of using the wrench is not working anymore. Top down management cannot legitimize change per se. People recognize that no individual can be so powerful as to be able to govern change. Also, the promise of growth to young and ambitious ones is much less interesting than it used to be, given the intensity of job hopping that talented people experience. So, should we throw away our wrench?

My answer is No. We need to move the jaw of our wrench to attach it to a different part of the fastener. Change today requires to lever on customers, and employees. By providing a link between these two powerful, but poorly represented stakeholder, we can ignite change. Our customers provide ideas, criticisms, energy, dedication, and much more out of their desire to get more value out of our products. Our employees are eager to have a chance to raise their heads out of their cubicles and break out of routine processes. Conducting a Digital Transformation means connecting these two constituencies and empowering them to radically reshape the way processes are being conducted.

There are resistances to be met:

  1. The HR department is obsessed with controlling change, and this change cannot be controlled, at least not in the traditional sense. Therefore it will constantly pull on the brakes raising lots of marginal issues from privacy to security to difficulties in defining contributions and performance.
  2. Managers have a hard time recognizing that their role is to go with the flow of ideas and processes, by providing rationalization to them, instead of being generals of an army, which move people and resources on a fixed map.
  3. Employees are disengaged and it takes time for them to embrace this challenge. They are often discouraged, and lack trust in the promises of change. They need to be accompanied and energized.
  4. Customers are contended by many other competitors, and their time is precious. They need to believe that you are really ready to change, no matter what.

But when these resistances are overcome, the pipeline of our organization will start magically to let the “flow” flow, and change will come from the inside, everyday and everywhere.