Over the years, expanding research on change, as well as what we have observed in our work, and that of others around the world, the following fundamental principles are common and essential for alignment and sustainable change.
Organization improvement in the distant past was the realm of experts. They carefully gauged your market and strategy and suggested various ways to arrange your organizational chart boxes in some combination of geographic, product, customer, or process mix. No longer.
To accelerate, broad segments of organizations need to get involved. In demystifying the change process, we learn that there are no secret methods or silver bullets. There are, however, fundamental time-tested principles. Those who practice our craft each have slightly different wordings but the statements below capture their essence. They underlie our framework and our consulting practice.
1. Effective Sponsors
The first principle is nothing new to those who have done this work before. There must be someone, several people, or an accountable group which articulates dissatisfaction with the status quo. They must envision a better future, and willing and able to make the tough choices to make the change happen, and have the accountability to do so. Regardless of culture, these people or mechanisms are recognized as legitimate in leading or brokering change. This is regardless of whether their accountabilities flow from position, power, or their own initiative.
Sponsors must understand their role and have a personal commitment and readiness to see the effort through. They must be clear on organization strategy and goals yet understand the people implications of the effort. They need to be active and show ownership throughout the effort, and know the ‘politics’ in order to have the right people authorize and resource. They need to coordinate and advocate the desired changes and share the accountabilities. In larger and more complex change projects with multiple sponsors, they must be able to work together.
2. Clear Strategic Context
Anyone who has worked on strategic change efforts also know that during the effort, the organization must develop a clear understanding of its business landscape. From that it must articulate or develop an agreed strategy and strategic objectives that enable it to succeed in this landscape. These must be the starting and ending point for alignment. The organization must be clear the requirements that both the strategy and the landscape place on the organization itself. These requirements will be the criteria for aligning the organization.
3. Change Approach that Matches Culture
Our third principle is much less well understood, and a unique aspect of our work. The approach taken to make the changes must match the organization’s culture. This is much harder than it sounds because often it is the very culture of the organization that requires the biggest change. So the change approach must first fit the current culture. Otherwise it will be rejected. But then where the culture must change, the approach must provide a smooth and seamless bridge to the desired culture. This necessitates an adequate understanding of the desired state and why the new culture is necessary.
4. Engaged and Involved People
For the past decade, the Gallup pollsters have pegged the level of employee engagement at a flat 30%. The reason for this high apathy in organizations is that people's ideas have not seriously considered when offered. We contend that in to match the speed of change outside the enterprise everyone impacted by the needed changes must be somehow involved in the effort and be able to influence the changes in some way. This can be offering feedback, providing expert advice in design, or getting actively involved in implementation. All of this improves the resulting design, accelerates progress towards implementation, and increases the sense of ownership of the changes.
To achieve authentic engagement in each part of the enterprise effected, those accountable must be active and accessible to people as the impact of the changes begin to be felt. Research in social science and psychology refer to this as "psychological safety". They must create or maintain a safe environment where people can talk openly about their concerns and the fears, and explore together elements perhaps missed by others. The change approach must not only be receptive to suggestions and ideas, but to proactively incorporate them.
We often use the word Engagement as shorthand for all this. We tend to avoid the phrase Change Management and its outdated premise that just the right words (communication) and tools will somehow convince ‘the masses’ and win them over to changes devised by some unknown or inaccessible group elsewhere in the enterprise, who understand the business context better than they. Ironically, there may be intelligence elsewhere, but we know from neuroscience, that that does not increase adoption significantly. Our engagement approach is based on getting staff engaged and invested in aspects of a new future that they are shaping and seeing how it will benefit not only them, but the enterprise and public served. Interestingly, people engaged don't always agree with the change but accept it more readily because they understand why it may be necessary.
5. An Integrated Organization - Organization Alignment
Acceleration involves aligning organizations around their strategy. This requires not only improving the individual building blocks, but also connecting them together into an integrated whole. We call the basic building blocks an organization’s components and we deal with them as inter-connected parts of a dynamic whole (system's thinking). Since changes in any one component can have far-reaching consequences in one or more of the other components, they must be carefully thought through and analyzed.
However, changing just one component alone may not help and may even hurt performance. For true alignment to occur, we need a systems-view to clearly identify what to change, what not to, and why. Change is not just fixing weaknesses, but often further enabling strengths. With these thoughts in mind, organization alignment is modifying the various components so that they and the resulting culture support and reinforce each other in achieving the organization’s strategic directions and goals within its external environment. Using a car metaphor, it includes fixing problems (repair), periodic health checks (maintenance), redesign of troubled components (overhaul), and starting over when needed with a new design (replace).
6. Coordinated Activities
The key aspects of the alignment effort must be coordinated. Outputs, goals, and activities need to be clear, have the right resources, be periodically scanned for its contribution to the whole, and adjusted when necessary. This includes what will be done by when and who needs to be informed and engaged.
While this can and does take the shape of traditional project management, we prefer not to use that term to describe this principle because it does not fit in all four cultures or landscapes. Planning and coordination can be provided by a central design team, but it can also be very effectively done by clearly drawn roles and accountabilities. Sometimes building the right relationships between key parties is enough.
The time horizon for coordination can similarly vary. Central design teams may rigorously map out a multi-month campaign and update plans as needed. Where much of the alignment work is done in meetings or conferences, coordination may mostly focus on what’s needed for the next meeting, leaving detailed actions to meeting participants either during or after the meetings.