You don’t need a grand strategy to achieve organisational change

By Greg Satell

Thursday April 16, 2020


Much like strategic transformations, organisational transformations often meet with resistance. The Harvard Business Review‘s Greg Satell shares key tips for achieving organisational change.

Usually when we think of transformation, we think of it as a shift in the fundamentals of a department or agency, like Steve Jobs’ return to Apple. Unfortunately, managers often overlook skills-based transformations, which can be every bit as important — and often more so — than higher-profile initiatives.

Much like strategic transformations, skills-based transformations often meet with resistance. For example, even though practices such as design thinking and agile development have become well-accepted among management theorists, they can still be hard to get adopted throughout a large organisation.

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Perhaps most importantly, managers need to understand that transformation is not about decisions made in a boardroom but about what happens on the ground at the agency. To succeed, transformational efforts need to empower line managers and employees with resources that help them solve any problems that may arise when adopting new practices. Here are tips for achieving organisational change.

Start with a small but meaningful project

Managers looking to implement a skills-based transformation are excited about the potential, and many want to start with a big kickoff. However, that approach often backfires. While the idea of transformation inspires some, it terrifies others. So a major push in the beginning will often provoke fear among many who aren’t ready for change, and those people will often try to undermine your efforts. In my experience helping organisations transform, I’ve seen that successful transformations rarely begin with a big show.

For example, Procter & Gamble’s PxG initiative, which seeks to reinvent how digital technologies are used to solve problems in the company’s research organisation, began with just one small project. “At the beginning, there were just three of us working on a project: One in R&D, one in manufacturing, and one in IT,” John Gadsby, who heads up the PxG program, told me. “We knew that we could work together in a better way. Through experimentation and iteration we were able to reduce the time for a key process from weeks down to hours. That got our work noticed.”

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that just because you’re starting small, what you’re doing isn’t meaningful. Debbie Chamkasem, who helped lead Experian’s transformation from a traditional technology architecture to the cloud, stressed this. “Our first projects were low risk and quickly generated real business results,” she told me. “That helped us build word-of-mouth and got others excited to work with us.”

Work to attract, not overpower

One common mistake that managers make is encouraging adoption through incentives, such as bonuses designed to encourage employees to embrace change. These tend to be problematic because they make it easy for people to show support for the initiative without having to truly commit to change.

A more viable approach is to identify those who are already enthusiastic about initiatives and empower them to drive the transformation themselves. For example, the food giant Mars Inc. recently created a “user centricity” movement that aims to apply design thinking principles across the organisation. Instead of trying to bribe or coerce employees, the team created educational programs, such as a “Design Thinking Bootcamp,” that people can opt into.

Scale through empowering the network

While managers often plan transformations to be linear and hierarchical, my experiences working with companies suggest that initiatives actually succeed by growing through informal networks, which are nonlinear. This allows them to start slowly and scale quickly through empowering advocates to share their excitement about an initiative with others, who can then spread the word with even more people in their networks.

One effective strategy that successful skill-based transformations use is to create resources that support those who are already committed to change. For example, at Experian, Chamkasem set up an “API centre of excellence” team that helps plan, build and implement solutions to run in the cloud.

Often more important than empowering individuals, however, is the development of learning tools that allow organisational change to take hold in interactions between colleagues and throughout the company. For example, at Philip Morris International’s FastForward program, which seeks to adopt lean business and design thinking principles throughout the company, has set up a number of resources to support its far-flung network of employees.

Reinvent norms and values

One thing that every successful skills-based transformation has in common is how profoundly it affects organisational culture. Again, this isn’t achieved through elaborate communications strategies but through empowerment.

As Experian’s Chamkasem told me, “Many thought that moving products to the cloud was risky. Now, the cloud has become a standard for us in every business unit across the globe. That has enabled us to pursue some exciting new business models that wouldn’t have been possible with a traditional architecture.”

You will know that organisational change has been achieved when it begins to seem mundane and ordinary because it has become so embedded in the systems and processes of an organisation that it comes to be considered the standard way of working.

(c) 2020 Harvard Business School Publishing Corp. Distributed by The New York Times Licensing Group

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