How do you change an organization? No, how do you REALLY change an organization?

Organizations, human systems, are in a constant state of flux – change is one of the few constants. But organizational transformation speaks to a whole other level of change – it speaks to what we often refer to as “culture change”: changing the fundamental attitudes that support the choices made on a moment-by-moment basis by the stakeholders within the system in all of their core activities and functions. That’s the whole enchilada that we call “organizational transformation”.

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Transformation

So what does it take to make organizational transformation work?

There are two necessary components, operators that are also sufficient, in the short term at least. They are:

  1. changes to the rules, and
  2. the application of sufficient resources to the task.

With sufficient force, applied through rule changes and enough resources, any human system can be transformed for some period of time. Perhaps it may seem Machiavellian to suggest it, but a leader does not need democratic consent, stakeholder buy-in or any of these related niceties in order to enable organizational transformation.

It is easiest to demonstrate this sort of forced organizational change by applications that are grossly apparent, like the traumas and injustices wrought by despotic regimes the world over, across time. But there are lesser examples that are abundant around us.

Every hare-brained scheme that was the brainchild of a misguided leader who thought he or she knew better, every government policy that went in place without clear business logic or social well-being as an underpinning, every pointless corporate re-organization; each of these demonstrated the two conditions listed above. Every one of these had the capacity to transform human systems for as long as the resources and the ability to enforce manage the rules rested with the leader.

These transformations, effective for however long or short a time period, are not healthy changes. I would question whether these human systems ever really “work”. We begin our consultative work from the point of view that believes that all human beings want to do good work – healthy, useful work that provides a net benefit to both the stakeholders within and affected by their system, and in the overall environment at large.

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Healthy Transformation

I would suggest that an organizational transformation that truly “works” is one that does draw on the wisdom of the system, and one that acts in service of all stakeholders – that the force is applied by the system itself. When the systemic changes are self-managed by the system, through an attitude of service and mutual well-being, then they can truly be said to have worked.

The application of healthy, enduring, service-focused organizational transformation follows a ten point plan, as follows:

  1. The moment of insight – that instant where a possibility is born.
  2. Engaging with a core team to coalesce the initial thought into a basic concept that is ready for testing.
  3. Open collaboration with an extensive subset of the system to nurture, challenge and enhance the concept.
  4. The development of irrefutable logic – whether a business case or social policy or any other instrument of net benefit, this is the place where the engaged team creates the “reason to believe”.
  5. Identification of the key rules that need to be shifted. A deep analysis of the key outcomes leads to an understanding of which rules, when augmented or diminished, will most fundamentally support the whole-system transformation.
  6. Determine the core actions and resources required to enable and to support the transformation.
  7. With situational authority, the leadership at all levels of the system shifts or changes the rules. Whether this is done formally (laws or policies) is wholly dependent on the system.
  8. Communicate broadly and continuously the irrefutable logic, the nature of the rule shift, the supporting projects and the resources available.
  9. Assess continuously and regularly the effect of the change. Be prepared to be surprised, negative benefits may unwittingly accrue.
  10. Iterate.

Look closely. Items 1 and 2 on the first list are items 7 and 8 on the second list. A leader who “knows better” can (and will) skip steps 2-6, deeming them a waste of his or her time. At some point, however, just because our universe seems to work that way, the “be prepared to be surprised” portion of step 9 will catch him or her unaware, and the organization will transform in a really big way; one in which he or she probably won’t find comfort.

Changing – transforming – an organization requires changes to rules, and the application of sufficient resources. Without both of these, the status quo is the only remaining option.

However, making transformation work requires additional steps, additional insight and additional rigour in analysis.

It’s not easy. But your human system is incredibly intelligent, and wants to make the change.

All you need to do is engage.