An exploration of two time-tested organizational theories
Business leaders know that what glitters isn’t always gold, and what’s new isn’t always better.
Change, a word that’s often as weighty as it is intriguing, can appear to be both. But when processes are in place that have survived even the executives who first implemented them, how do we know if changing them will be any good? After all, appearances can be deceiving.
The good news is that if something isn’t working, change will break it so you can fix it. Laying the pieces on the table is the only way to see which ones you should keep, discard, and build. The road will be tedious but necessary for innovation.
You most likely cannot get to the point of creating something worthwhile without putting new processes in place to support it.
Thinking about your change management strategy
As someone who manages a business, team, or large organization, you know that not everyone will be happy to accept change. It needs to be carried out carefully and with tact, otherwise, departure from familiarity without warning or guidance can sometimes make people feel powerless and resentful, leading to a loss of productivity and uncooperative work environments.
That’s where organizational change management comes in.
Change management is a structured approach to transitioning teams from their current state to a desired future state.
Methods of properly managing change have been discussed for decades, perhaps because all too often leaders assume that their people will just “get used to it”.
No matter adaptable your culture is, anxiety around something different will never fully disappear. From the nimble startup to the large hospital with staunch processes and guidelines, proper change management is not only necessary to sustain a healthy work environment but to survive for the long haul.
Change management principles, in practice
Kurt Lewin's model
"If you want to truly understand something, try to change it." - Kurt Lewin
How should change management actually be implemented? That's another issue entirely. There are many theories as to how to correctly carry out change management - consider this one:
Kurt Lewin’s change management model is used in many businesses today and is comprised of three stages: Unfreeze, Change, and Refreeze.
If this sounds reminiscent, that’s because it is.
Lewin saw enacting change the same way he saw changing the shape of a block of ice – if you want it to be different, you have to
- Melt the ice (break down old processes)
- Place the water into the shape you want (implement the change), and finally
- Refreeze the water in its new shape (solidify new processes and behaviors)
Stage #1: Unfreeze
To break down old processes in order to build new ones, you can’t simply discuss changes in secret and railroad your employees into acceptance later.
You have to prepare your whole organization by sharing your vision of why things can’t go on the way they are and why it’s important that they change.
Instead of waiting for chaos to slow boil in the days to come, address it head-on by "thawing out" outdated methods and unproductive behaviors. The goal here is to get to the pain points first, then motivate others to seek new ground together.
Stage #2: Change
This is where you start outlining and implementing your new processes. Uncertainty and obstinacy are inevitable at this point.
The important thing to remember is that change takes time and just because change is good doesn’t mean people will want it. You need to be willing to work with others to guide them to the new state of action.
This means applying training, new technology, and communicating often. Ensuring that they feel connected to the cause and continuing to motivate is crucial.
Stage #3: Refreeze
The final stage is reinforcing the new behaviors and processes implemented in Stage 2.
Reverting to old habits is easy, so leaders must take steps to ensure they are consistently collecting feedback they can use to identify persistent issues. You can collect feedback in many ways, whether verbally or by using technology that allows a secret vote. The more information you know, the more proactive you can be when sharing changes in the future.
This theory can be applied to any situation where change (especially large-scale) is necessary, however for organizations that are constantly changing, it may not be the best option as it can be time-consuming and in-depth.
Let’s look at another theory:
John Kotter's Eight Steps to Change
"The central issue is never strategy, structure, culture, or systems. The core of the matter is always about changing the behavior of people." - John Kotter
John Kotter’s Eight Steps to Change is an organizational change model that’s lengthier but may be more appropriate for businesses who require smaller changes, often.
Step 1: Create Urgency
Share the reasons why what you’re doing isn’t working.
Better yet, show the reasons why.
- If your sales are declining, use a graph
- If customer service is waning, identify the gaps in response time
- If marketing efforts aren’t working, go through the reports together
What you want to achieve is an open and honest dialogue that creates a sense of urgency for improvement and quick turnaround. Not everyone will buy in at first, so you need to spend a lot of time working through different scenarios of threats and opportunities.
Step 2: Build a Coalition
Showing people the issue is one thing, convincing them is another.
To do so, you’ll have to pinpoint effective leaders in your organization and bring them together to advance your new mission.
You’ll want a mix of people that represent various departments – these people should have an emotional commitment to the cause so they can build momentum among their peers.
Step 3: Form a Strategic Vision
When you’ve identified the threats and opportunities that your organization faces, the obvious next step is to come up with a solid vision.
Too many ideas can lead to a stalemate, so it’s best to only weigh quality ideas that relate to the cause at hand.
Quality ideas are those that:
- Align with your cause
- Are measurable
- Are executable
- Have an end goal
- Are timely
Your strategic vision should be clear, easily communicated by your coalition, and it should address the how and why of what you’re trying to achieve.
Step 4: Enlist a Volunteer Army
In other words, you want to get everyone on board with your new vision.
It’s important not to just talk about it, but to lead by example. Have regular meetings, gather feedback, and welcome discussion. Address concerns often, and remember to always refer your actions back to the vision.
Step 5: Remove Barriers
You want to make actual change implementation a smooth transition, so this means removing obstacles that will hinder the success of the change.
Evaluate those that are resisting change and try to get to the root of it through counseling, training, and guidance. In this particular model, it may be necessary to remove or replace individuals that simply won’t budge – even after you’ve exhausted all other methods.
This step isn’t just people focused however, you may also need to abolish certain long-standing practices, too.
Step 6: Generate Short-Term Wins
Even though the long game is always in sight, you can create quick wins early on in the process to show your organization what success can look like.
Develop projects that are relevant to your long-term goal, but with effects that can be seen sooner. Make each of your projects achievable so you can move the needle forward a little at a time.
Step 7: Sustain Acceleration
Once you start seeing wins, no matter how small, analyze them for improvement.
Every time your team reaches a goal, set a new one so you have something to work toward. If you reach your ultimate goal, don’t rest on your laurels. Consistent improvement is the key to new ideas and innovation.
Step 8: Institute Change
Much like Stage 3 of Lewin’s theory, you want to ensure that change is reinforced and not forgotten.
Ensure your coalition continues to uphold the new values you’ve all created and see that the changes are rooted in your company culture. How?
Update your mission statement, rewrite your company guidelines, reiterate changes when hiring new staff and always, always practice what you preach.
Although Kotter’s process requires a little more detail, short-term wins are a great way to keep your smaller organization moving towards a bigger and better goal. For multi-tiered organizations, getting people to act on a small goal may be a bit more difficult.
Adhering to strict rules vs. other methods
Both of these organizational change management methods have their merits, but some would argue that cementing processes like this in place leaves little room for creativity or innovation and can actually diminish chances for a new equilibrium.
Is change better left as an organic tool for restructuring? Or is it better to build a framework and adapt as you go?
How do you vote on change management theories?