Explainers

Organizational Changemaking: A New Change Model for Ambitious Organizations

To deliver meaningful change, NOBL developed its own approach to organizational change management

In this series on organizational change, we look into why organizations struggle to change—and why we believe that, despite all the obstacles, change is possible if we do it together. Part I addresses why teams are so often skeptical, and how leaders play a critical role in proving change can happen. Part II analyzes the assumptions underlying many change models, and why they actually prevent change from happening.

We believe that “together, change is possible.” But the truth is that NOBL was founded in response to a growing body of evidence of just how impossible it was to make change.

Our founding members had all worked in innovation agencies, digital transformation studios, and within the operations function of major companies, tasked with infusing organizations with new ideas and technologies that would give them a competitive edge. But to our surprise, we saw firsthand that organizations weren’t suffering from a lack of ideas or access to technology. In fact, they often had passionate staff who were already championing the same new approaches we were peddling. The real problem was organizational culture: incentives that muzzled new ideas, silos that prevented changes from spreading, and processes that reinforced the status quo at every turn. 

What organizations actually needed was a process to make change. Not another comms plan or additional “change theater,” but a way to truly change collective behaviors and mindsets. Teams had to adapt to customers’ emerging needs faster. Leaders wanted to spread new practices throughout the organization, and to know when it was time to revisit those practices. In other words, organizations needed a process to ensure change wasn’t just a one-time event driven by a lucky or persistent “rebel,” but rather, a muscle within the organization that could grow stronger with practice.

So, we hit the books. (Cue the movie montage.) We investigated every popular change model on the market. We interviewed past clients and legendary changemakers. We pestered experts. We hired academics and seasoned change practitioners. We borrowed ideas from traditional change management, yes, but also complexity science (a new scientific field that emerged in the 1980s and 90s), human-centered design, and agile and lean methodologies. Most importantly, we experimented with real teams and their messy problems. Over a span of five years, and in partnership with some of the world’s most famous organizations, we tried dozens of novel combinations of change processes, aiming for the following outcomes:

  • Rapid proof. If the shared belief that “change is possible” is so critical to long-term and org-wide change, could we produce early wins that serve as tangible evidence that change is, indeed, possible? Could we confront skepticism and even cynicism, not with arguments or empty gestures, but with real proof of change?
  • Minimal ongoing resistance. Could we confront, head-on, the feelings of loss (of control, time, competence, and so on) that folks naturally feel amid any significant change? 
  • Enduring impacts. Could our changes stick? And not just when it was safe to experiment—would teams continue to embrace change and adaptation when uncertainty and pressure mounted against them?
  • Increased capacity for change in the future. Could we design a process that would ultimately work within organizations without our support in the long-term? Would they be more open to change in the future?

As we chased those outcomes, we found that the following mindsets and methods were essential to success:

  • Co-creation: When we let go of our need to be perceived as experts, and just asked teams what they’d always wanted to try, we saw a dramatic increase in and efficacy of change. Teams who designed their own change had greater motivation and resisted loss less. So we embraced our role as coaches in their process, helping teams troubleshoot blockers and stay on track, rather than trying to prove just how smart we were.
  • A behavior-first approach: Decades of social science tell us that behaviors change attitudes, not the other way around. Yet so many change models obsess over comms plans and catch-phrases, desperate to persuade people into changing. Just as a smoking cessation patch beats a scary PSA in helping folks actually quit smoking, creating a safe environment where teams can try new behaviors together works better to produce change than any comms plan or sizzle reel. In our process, when communication efforts do kick in, it’s to tell the story of teams who are making change—not idolizing change itself.
  • Different methods for different types of change: Generally, change within organizations happens in two ways:
    • Some changes, like reorgs, mergers, and leadership transitions, companies need to get mostly right the first try. That’s because they affect the entire organization and are painful to reverse. So while no change can be guaranteed, these interventions need to be as “fail-safe” as possible.
    • Other changes—new processes, tool implementations, cultural rituals—actually benefit from rapid iteration, and can be reversed without much cost or harm. These interventions should be designed as “safe-to-fail,” where rapid experimentation and constant iteration lead to better solutions, all without causing irreparable harm.
    • Most enterprise-wide change programs (like a reorg or strategic pivot) involve both types of change, as well as a way to continually connect the dots between the two. Once we started applying these principles, we saw a major uptick in our success rate, as clients better understood how the different changes we were making impacted each other.
  • Change as competitive advantage: The most successful organizational changes are led by executive teams who see change as an ongoing competitive advantage, not just a one-time endeavor. These leaders demanded not just our coaching and expertise, but an expectation that we would leave their organizations better equipped to respond to change.

Putting these lessons together, we are excited to finally unveil our approach to organizational change that we call “Organizational Changemaking.”

Introducing Organizational Changemaking

In practice, Organizational Changemaking is a complex process due to the very nature of organizational change itself—a complex process that we offer both in delivery and in training to our clients (so don’t hesitate to reach out for more information). For now, let’s walk through the steps at a high-level:

First, in any new organization, we orient ourselves. Our primary goal of this step is to understand where the organization needs to go, and what resistance to change to expect. This isn’t a traditional consulting company’s “discovery” phase: in fact, because of our training in complex systems, we don’t believe you can describe an organization accurately just through interviews and surveys. The real understanding comes when you try to make change, which reveals where power lies, what triggers resistance, and which divisions lean in versus those that “wait and see.” 

As a result, this step is also much faster than a typical discovery phase, and culminates in a portfolio of changes sourced from staff themselves. We ask teams directly what they would like to try, and facilitate retrospective meetings with cross-functional groups to identify better ways to work together. We’ll deploy surveys, too, but largely to define a set of baseline metrics to compare against over time. 

Second, we bring together a diverse group of internal stakeholders and align on the road ahead. With most clients, this looks and feels like a highly effective offsite or retreat for their top executives, people leaders, rising stars, and cultural torchbearers. We’ll share the overall future direction of the organization (framed in simple “from ____ to ____” statements) and the ideas that their folks generated. The group works through those ideas to arrive at an initial portfolio of desired future outcomes (e.g. “greater customer centricity”) and prioritized interventions. Our goal is not only to determine the work ahead, but also create buy-in early in the process and enlist an army of change advocates in what’s to come.

Third, we divide the desired changes into “Fail-Safe” and “Safe-to-Fail” paths.

  • For fail-safe changes, while the cost of failure may be high, the solution set is usually finite, even small. (For example, even though consultants “reinvent” the matrix org structure each year, there are really only a handful of ways to organize people in a company.) We determine the possibility set, weighing the tradeoffs of each, and then engage leadership in a process of balancing those tradeoffs against the future growth plans of the organization. Then, we plan the roll out of these changes while reducing change resistance. 
  • For safe-to-fail changes, we organize cross-functional teams, or “Squads,” to prioritize, test, and improve upon the initial set of ideas suggested in the Orient step. This process looks akin to agile software delivery in that the squad meets weekly to define what they’ll try, and then reports back on what they’ve learned and want to try next. We then help successful changes spread to more teams.

Throughout this process, we integrate the changes being made across both methods. For example, to become more customer-centric, an organization might try a reorg to focus on critical customer segments (a fail-safe change) while also redesigning their decision-making processes to include more customer feedback and insights (a safe-fail change). We stitch these changes together, both in terms of what each effort is learning and how they will eventually work in concert, to produce the desired outcome of greater customer-centricity. We’ll also survey the organization at this point to measure the extent of the changes and their impact on the organization’s change goals.

Fifth and finally, we equip the organization to no longer need us to make change. Throughout our process, we train internal champions in our Changemaking approach, but this is the moment when the group codifies those lessons into a unique “Change Playbook” for the rest of the organization. For our enterprise-sized clients, this step typically involves forming a center of excellence to lead organizational change within the company in the future. Organizations that have continued to use a modified version of our process have identified millions of dollars in both cost-savings and new opportunities. 

All models and approaches are wrong, some are useful

We expected to find the answer to our founding question, “How do you actually make change in organizations?” in existing literature or practice. And while we found inspiration, we didn’t get a real answer until we experimented in partnership with our clients. Over the past seven years, this model has consistently produced meaningful change across a radically diverse set of companies, cultures, and contexts. We firmly believe that, in the world of change models, it stands alone in terms of both potential impact and holistic understanding—not so much because we favor what we imagine, but because we’ve tried the rest. You don’t have to take our word for it: we’re sharing so you can try it for yourself. Of course, we’re happy to help directly.

In our final article in this series, we discuss why you’ve never had a better time to rethink the ways organizations work, and why blindly hoping to return to the world of work of 2019 is impossible.

Published June 27, 2021