Thoughts on the dynamics of successful organizational change

This week a few light bulbs went off over my head. Unfortunately, I was kept too busy to have time to document them until now (hence the dearth of blog entries). What follows are some insights into how large organizations effect large changes.

Organizations of sufficient age will naturally resist change. They are typically optimized to solve known problems. This has the consequence of meaning that they are not well positioned to retrofit to solve new ones. Change is usually painful and the larger the change the more painful it is. Yet change is inevitable. While change is usually painful, change can also bring new rewards and new opportunities. Large government bureaucracies, such as the one I work in, are especially resistant to change. It is one thing for the senior leadership of an organization to make a decision. It is quite another thing to implement effectively their decision, particularly when the organization is distributed, the change is very large, the teams are highly matrixed and multiple managers have competing interests and goals.

Adroitly managing change is perhaps an organization’s toughest challenge. In the private sector, this ability translates into a company’s survivability and profitability. Which is why it is so interesting to observe how major changes happen successfully. I have discovered that inside my organization is a hidden group of change artists who have no name or formal affiliation.

I should point out that the movers and shakers are not necessarily its management. Senior leadership consists of people who are essentially directors. They tell people what to do in visionary terms. To be effective, successful senior leaders need to acquire two critical skills. First, they must develop an instinct of who to hire, since they must trust and delegate most of their work to them. Second, they must be excellent listeners. They need to be able to slip through organizational boundaries and listen to those in the organization’s middle and lower ranks. In particular, since change is inevitable they need to listen closely to those who have a proven record of accomplishment implementing change.

Managers are not necessarily movers and shakers either, although they can be and arguably should be. Managers come in all flavors too, from the dysfunctional pointy-haired boss to the exceptionally competent. Managers generally decide at a high level what things should be done and who should do them. However, their control is limited to those they supervise or direct. They may be brilliant managers of their own domains, but exceptionally poor at working relationships between other managers. If they possess both then they can be movers and shakers. Otherwise, they are just managers.

Organizational change is multidirectional. It flows down through the management chain in the form of decisions. It also should flow up, as expressed in the ideas, passions and implemented practices of those at the lower and middle levels. Change also operates laterally across groups of people engaged in similar missions. The ability of an organization to effect lateral change is critical to making large changes happen. It depends largely on the social networking skills and passions of people generally at and near or just below the management layer. In particular, it depends on the social networking skills of those people who need to work across organizational boundaries. If they have these skills, organizational change is more likely to succeed.

Organizational changes happen most rapidly and efficiently in organizations where every employee is empowered to the maximum extent possible. This is because the more an employee can infuse a job with his own skills and passion the happier he is likely to be in his job. Consequently, it is more likely that he will provide his best effort. When an employee is empowered, he becomes vested in the outcome of the change.

Who are the movers and shakers in your organization? Look for those with a passion for excellence and the internal wherewithal to focus like a laser beam on a successful outcome. Even when they have other problems that must be managed, they will be tenacious and continually work on implementing change even while they do their normal business. They tend to be determined people, skilled in the culture of the organization and relentlessly focused on the success of a particular endeavor.

I like to think of myself as one of the movers and shakers where I work, but I am not sure I am there yet. For one thing, I have been with my current organization only four years, which means I am still an apprentice when it comes to working the institutional kudzu. I do not always have the 24×7 passion of the best movers and shakers. However, I have been successful in promoting some my ideas for major changes. I noticed that the more passionate I felt about an idea, the more likely it was to see be realized. It occurred sometimes to the chagrin of my chain of command. They resist in part because they feel overwhelmed with change and do not want to foster any more of it. Were I more socially adroit, I perhaps could have sold these changes with less friction. Nonetheless, my passion for them kept me motivated and eventually persuaded those who could effect change to agree with me.

These movers and shakers though rarely are rewarded commensurate with the skill and passion they bring to their jobs. Yet they are invaluable. Without them, the organization would either cease to exist or devolve toward inertia.

I feel like I have one foot in their domain and the other foot in the past. As I absorb their lessons, I have a goal for myself to assume the rank of a full-fledged mover and shaker too.

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