Speeding up the pace of organizational change
True change takes years, unless you do something more deliberate
When I was a kid, I recall hearing about the theory that every cell in our body is replaced within a seven-year time period. I have also heard the same thing about real estate investing, and when you’re likely to get that next big promotion. Just last year, I was at a conference with an organizational development associate who she said to me: “True organizational change takes seven years.”
I admit, it takes some time to create change, but I don’t think there is a magic number. Change can happen when you set it in motion.
To be clear, change requires deliberate action, much like getting your son to mow the lawn or changing your corporate brand. There are processes and tactics, but they should not be taken lightly. For more detail, look up Dr. John Kotter’s eight-step change model or any college text on the subject. We know what to do, but to do it well it needs to be a focus of your strategy.
Change is about providing a vision for the future reality, getting people to own that vision through influence and learning, demonstrate wins and knowing that there is no changing your mind. Let’s summarize here:
• Shock the system – You likely need to change for a reason. The leader must emphasize this reason in no mild terms. People will seek every justification to keep things as they are. In order to get their attention, you must be bold and brutally honest. It is scary to tell the truth and to deliver bad news, but good and smart people love it once they hear and believe it. My only caveat here is that you don’t wallow in it. Once you present the pain, you must then move quickly to visioning the future.
• Future vision – Change is a time experiment. If you go back to a 1966 version of “Star Trek” (the TV show, for some of you youngsters) you will see 2014. It’s almost a little spooky. They had laptop computers, cell phones with apps and they were all very organized. They even had a young leader who was less than traditional. Gene Roddenberry (the show’s writer) showed the world a vision of the future, which millions of teenagers watched, and they eventually made changes in our society.
If you want to change your organization, create a vision for what you want and then share it.
• Aligning people – Vision is only as good as who you enlist to participate. Enlisting people requires engaging them in some way. Roddenberry engaged people through a TV show. You can engage your team through collaboration – making them believe it is their own idea, that they are shaping it, they are part of something bigger and better than the status quo. Without others following the idea, it will soon fade away. You sell your idea for change.
• Using influence – A major method to exponentially align people is to use influencers to help you. The primary influencer is the leadership team, but the real influencers are the rank-and-file workers who are the implementers of the change.
One method is to choose the influential people at all levels and get them involved. These can be front-line people who others look to for opinions. Enlist them to the cause, and change will happen exponentially.
• Learn and teach: You now must put people to work learning and experiencing the change. This does a couple of things. It gives them more information about the change and it allows them to experience what is actually happening. They will either determine that the change was easy and had little effect, or demonstrate to them that there is a more complex thing afoot. Either way, they are now in it and that can’t be stopped.
This should be the end of the story, because if you have people doing things, the change has already occurred and it can take months, not seven years.
• No turning back – I like the story about what pirates did when they invaded an island. They would burn their ships behind them. You see, if they were stepping onto the beach and they looked back to see no ship, they had no choice but to get into the battle. The same applies here. If you have established that change is needed for important reasons, then it is illogical to go back. Something Spock might say.
The other important matter is that true change can be expensive, but not as expensive as doing nothing. Change should be planned, funded, provided resources and then measured carefully. If the issue is large, like a strategic direction shift, or small, like a new sales policy, the same thinking applies.
Russ Ouellette is managing partner of Sojourn Partners, an executive leadership strategy and coaching firm in Bedford.