Monday, April 20, 2009

The Four Stages of Organizational Change

Leading organizational change is not for the faint hearted. Nor is it something you can merely dabble in with your leftover time. It requires your very best leadership focus, perseverance, and resources. Most firms aren't willing to pay the price.

But these are extraordinary times. When it requires hard work simply to survive, perhaps you're ready for the hard work of change. Even if your firm has dodged the worst of the recession, the downturn should serve as a warning shot across the bow. It's a good time to consider what changes are needed to better prepare your firm for an uncertain future.

If you're ready for change, let me suggest you plan for the four stages of organizational change that almost always occur in successful efforts. Shortchange any one of these stages and your change initiative is likely to disappoint.

Stage 1: Edict

For your change initiative to succeed, your staff must perceive a compelling reason for it. As we examined in a previous post, most people inherently resist change. It pushes them out of their comfort zone. It forces them to break entrenched habits. There is pain involved in changing. And when the pain of change is greater than the pain of staying the same, meaningful, lasting change is unlikely to occur.

So people need an Edict, a compelling reason for submitting to the pain of change. This may come in the form of a management mandate. A client mandate is better still (another good reason for soliciting regular feedback from your clients). It may be some other circumstance, such as a severe recession or a shift in the marketplace, that compels people to change lest they face something worse. The change must be viewed as required; the result you initially want is compliance.

Stage 2. Effort

With your Edict established, the change initiative gains momentum. The focus shifts from why to how. A plan is developed, tasks are assigned, new procedures are established, and systems are put into place to support the new approaches. The Effort stage is evidenced by a surge of activity. Most actions at this stage are prescribed, although they are ideally developed through collaboration--which is a critical outcome you want. Change is more likely to happen if colleagues are working together to make it happen.

This stage is also where change initiatives usually stall.
Just as you are beginning to see change occurring, the force of the Edict weakens. Your progress, in fact, can work against you as the sense of urgency begins to fade (plus other urgent matters have typically intervened). It's important to keep the Edict alive at this critical juncture. In some cases, it may evolve into a different set of compelling circumstances. In others, you may need to produce new evidence that your Edict is still valid. Whatever the case, you need to keep pushing to keep change moving forward--until you get a boost from the next stage of the process.

Stage 3. Ethic

A vital milestone in your change initiative is when people begin to move beyond the necessity of change to appreciating the value of change. Yes, progress can mute the power of the Edict, but hopefully it also is producing positive outcomes. Your colleagues start to see the benefits of the changes you're making. These benefits must be realized at the personal level, not just at the corporate or business unit level. As they become evident, the change is increasingly seen as strategic. This hopefully helps generate enough momentum to ensure the continuation of the change effort.

The new ways of doing things are now viewed in a positive light by the "functional majority" (not a simple majority, but a majority of the people who most influence group behavior). The new ways now constitute a corporate Ethic about how things should be done. While this is a necessary milestone, there is still another you must reach to ensure the change is sustainable over the long term.

Stage 4. Ethos

In order to complete the change process, you need to move beyond mere agreement that it is necessary and good. It must become embedded in your culture, "the way things are done around here." Now the change shifts from being externally motivated to being internally motivated. It's moved from the head to the heart. It's no longer just what you do; it's who you are. It's still hard work, but people wouldn't accept the alternative. The change has become characteristic, the result of a significant cultural change.

The importance of culture in change efforts is well established both in research and experience. You can shortcut the change process somewhat if you can anchor the change in some facet of your existing culture. The better the desired change fits within that culture, the easier the change effort. But organizational change often involves a significant cultural change; that's where the hard work really comes from. But once you've reached the Ethos stage, all the effort will have been worth it.

In my next post, I'll illustrate the four stages of change in a real-life example of a successful change initiative.


John Poole said...

Excellent post. I've worked for a couple of companies where they were working on the biggest project they have ever had and the were making efforts at making substantive change in their organization. I've also noticed that the existing members of the organization hate the direction in which they are moving and the new members like it or at least don't mind it. The leadership never came in and enforced the change - it was all implied. The direction and alignment must start with the leadership.

Mel Lester said...

Thanks for the feedback once again, John. I think organizational change is a fascinating topic, and grossly negelected as a leadership priority. Being able to make substantial changes (and improvements) is vital to achieving the success that most firm leaders want. But most take an overly simplistic approach to it. The usually disappointing results speak for themselves.