There are plenty of professionals out there making a healthy living assisting companies through difficult organizational changes. The toughest changes typically involve transforming the culture of a company but even smaller changes can be a daunting task. While I’m certainly not advocating that companies avoid seeking outside expertise, having a basic understanding of what drives an organization to change can go a long ways when it comes to helping yourself.
Organizations, especially large ones, behave much in the same way as living organisms. They respond to both internal and external stimulus. There are many different types of stimulus but pain is probably the easiest to understand for the purpose of this analogy. Stimulus can be localized or broadly felt and the resulting behavior will vary accordingly. If you put your hand on something hot, you quickly yank your hand back. If a bus is about to run you over as you try crossing the street your entire body jumps back (or you suffer some terrible consequences). Similarly, areas of an organization will react to localized competitive threats or challenges that threaten their existence. If the entire company is seriously threatened (e.g., due to an economic down turn), you can expect to see sweeping changes ripple through the entire organization. The key point here is that organizations change primarily as a response to stimulus. Management and leaders within the organization can set policy or issue orders, but unless it’s backed up by some form of stimulus, don’t expect change to come quickly.
So, how do we predict how an organization is going to react when it is poked and prodded? And can we use that knowledge to help encourage positive change? Below you’ll see a diagram of a simple framework that I’ve successfully used for many years to help gauge how an organization will typically react based on the strength of the stimulus and the level of engagement by management.
In subsequent blogs, I talk in more detail about each of the quadrants above, including how you can leverage that knowledge to move your organization towards an optimal state. Here’s a brief description of each area:
Covert Operations – This is an environment in which there is no significant pressure or stimulus being put on the organization and management generally has little interest in changing the status quo. You’ll often find individuals or teams of folks quietly working “under the radar” attempting to pursue change.
Natural Section – This is a dangerous place to be for any organization. There is significant pressure being put on the organization’s survival but management has a poor understanding of the challenges. The changes that are made are often a knee jerk reaction by senior leadership. Poor performers who are able to successfully redirect their failures are often retained while strong employees can be terminated for failures outside of their control.
Grass Roots Initiatives – This is generally a positive state for most organizations, where the stimulus for change may be small but management has an interest in supporting improvements that will give them the edge when things do get tough. Often these improvements are driven by the lower-ranking employees with sponsorship by a specific executive manager. Change is often slow but the outcomes are generally positive.
Forced Evolution – This is state of rapid but controlled change, generally driven directly by top-level senior executives. The organization is often under a very significant external threat but leadership has a strong vision for how to move forward. There is no guarantee of success, but the organization is extremely focused and quickly moves as a whole towards a set of common goals.
Stay tuned for a more in-depth discussion in the weeks to come!