Most people would argue that the ability to change is critical to an organization’s long-term survival. To this end, the literature is full of theories, methodologies, recommendations and analysis on how an organization should be structured to maximize the likelihood of successful change.
Organizations need to be structured to provide employee empowerment, lean operating techniques and continuous improvement philosophies -- and that is just a small sampling of examples. Yet we still hear about organizations failing to achieve desired change despite exemplary efforts to support such structural recommendations.
The reality is that if we want to see advancement in this arena, a major paradigm shift needs to occur regarding the dynamics of change and organizational structure. The best place to begin this shift is by leveraging four concepts found in “change science.”
1. Think of Change as a Continuous Effort
One of the first things change science tells us is that change is constantly and continuously occurring around us on a universal basis. Therefore, it is important for everyone in the organization from the board of directors down to individuals in front-line administrative and production positions to recognize this fact.
Every time a new customer order is received, an engineering drawing is created, a product is produced, an invoice is generated, and the list goes on, a change has occurred. Organizations are continuously inundated with change. Assuming an organization is managed to survive, this change (both expected and unexpected) on the whole is successful.
Step 1 is to make sure everyone stops thinking of change as strictly specific efforts or events and recognize that the organization is already successfully dealing with a continuous stream of change at every level.
2. Give Employees Control Over Change
So how does an organization manage all this continuously occurring change? The answer is simple: delegation. From the person who pushes the button to start the production machine, to the person who enters the customer order and to the manager that resolves a conflict, responsibility for the control of these various changes has been delegated.
It is important to recognize that employee empowerment automatically exists as soon as that individual is given responsibility for managing and controlling the change that has been assigned to them. What is most often lacking is a top-to-bottom organizational recognition of the fact that not only is there a significant amount of change continuously occurring, but through the assignment of responsibility, all the employees are already masters at managing and executing all of that change.
3. Distinguish Operational vs. Strategic Change
Given that organizations are already managing and executing a continuous flow of change, why all the discussion about how they struggle with change? The answer lies in the fact that organizations have allowed the lines of responsibility between day-to-day operational change and strategic change to get blurred. More important, it is common that the interrelationship between operational change and strategic change has become disconnected.
Strategic change is in response to both internal opportunities for improvement and reaction to external influences that can threaten the organization.
Operational change focuses on the short-term expected and unexpected change that needs to be executed in support of the customer and is based upon strategic change that has occurred within the organization on a historical basis.
It is critical that everyone understands that both operational change and strategic change are equally important for the organization to survive. All individuals must accept that operational change needs to be continuously executed in the here and now, while strategic change needs to be focused on the future.
4. Adjust Management Responsibilities
Assuming an organization is successful in Steps 1 through 3, it can still face challenges when addressing change if there is not a clear delineation of responsibility for operational and strategic change amongst the workforce. The following guidelines will help:
- Drive responsibility for day-to-day operational change as far down the organizational pyramid as possible. Ideally, the more operational change that can be executed and controlled at the administrative and production levels of the organization, the better. These are the people closest to the operational change and generally have the greatest ability to address opportunities and issues that may arise.
- Clearly indicate (i.e. including through appraisal and compensation arrangements) that the primary responsibility for strategic change is from the lowest management levels on up to the executive level. There will always be operational change that requires involvement at the higher levels of management. Even a major contract could easily require sign-off by the chief executive. But it should be clear that the main responsibility of management should be related to the accomplishment of strategic change.
- There should be a clear understanding at the ground operational level that it is management’s responsibility to make sure there is continuous strategic change occurring with the objective of long-term improvement and survival of the organization. But it is also important to make sure a communication loop supports the delineation of responsibility. This includes communication of the whys and what behind strategic change to those with a primary responsibility over operational change, along with feedback for those responsible for strategic change regarding the performance of strategic initiatives and other opportunities for improvements.
By following these four steps, an organizational structure that will greatly enhance the ability to support the change required for growth and long-term survival is really quite simple. The real challenge lies in executing the paradigm shift that requires a clear understanding across the organization that change is constant and that the delineation of responsibility between strategic and operational change is required.
Tom Somodi, president and CEO of the Change Science Institute, has extensive experience with reorganizations, acquisitions and strategic change initiatives as a chief executive. He is author of The Science of Change: Basics Behind Why Change Succeeds and Fails.