Why Organizational Change and Transformation Require Different Implementation Strategies

Change has changed, and understanding when and how to apply different models will determine your organization’s ability to evolve

A quick glance at some of the most popular organizational change models shows a common problem: they all think that they have the one right way to do it. But the truth is that more than anyone model or change process, companies must be able to discern what the right model is for their particular organizational change. Not only that, sometimes a change initiative actually requires different models for different elements of the change, as well as a way to integrate those changes together without overwhelming the organization’s culture.

In our work transforming hundreds of companies representing different industries, sizes, and cultures, we’ve found there are actually two types of organizational change: “fail-safe” and “safe-to-fail.” Understanding when and how to apply each type leads to lasting organizational transformation, and more importantly, teams that understand how to continue to change and grow in response to market demands.

Organizational Change

NOBL has helped world-famous organizations stop talking about change and instead start making change. Reach out to see how we might be able to help your organization.

Why Has Change Management Changed?

Two types of organizational change management are necessary because at a market and societal level, change itself has changed. Traditional change models were invented for a world where change was less frequent, more predictable, and more controllable. Today, the world is speeding up, and power within organizations is more dispersed (that is, less top-down). As a result, the ability to navigate constant change—and enlist the entire organization in doing so—isn’t just a requirement, it’s a competitive advantage.

Inside the complex adaptive system that is the modern organization, meanwhile, change leaders are finding there are many ways to solve a problem—companies aren’t just Swiss watches that can be taken apart and easily predicted. Lengthy discovery phases or exhaustive assessments made in an attempt to diagnose problems quickly fade in relevance, nor do they tell you how the organization will actually respond to change initiatives. The real “discovery” phase only comes when new changes are introduced, and the organization responds to new ways of working.

At a human level, though, little has changed; we still fear change because it triggers feelings of loss and uncertainty. We’re only likely to make a change when we’re motivated, capable of, and need to change. That’s why no matter which type of organizational change we’re implementing, we make sure to:

Engage every layer of the organization in change. We glean insights and needs from front-line employees and key stakeholders, we workshop business strategy with executives, and we empower organizational leaders to own and drive the change. We need everyone’s participation in order to implement successful change.

Recognize and create space for feelings and sensations during change. We make space for feelings of loss, and we train leadership skills like spotting and managing change resistance within teams. 

Focus on behaviors, attitudes will follow. Other consulting companies waste time with pithy change slogans and empty promises for an idealized future state (which often increase resistance), when what most leadership teams really want are changed behaviors.

Amplify social proof. We highlight the folks who have made change in order to prove it’s possible to implement change, and to create internal incentives to further motivate people.

Build capacity for change, not dependence. Knowing that change is the “new normal,” teams we work are more equipped to continue successful change management after we leave. In every thing we do, we hope not only to accomplish stated business goals, but also to train others to take our place.

If you’re tired of talking about change and want to prove that it’s possible; if you want to do big, bold, new things; it’s important to first evaluate the best approach for effective change management—and it may not be what you expect.

Organizational Transformation through Fail-Safe Change

Fail-safe changes are what many managers typically think of when they hear “change management”: organizational-wide, high-impact changes like a reorg or new leadership. When NOBL first started, we were skeptical of this approach to implementing change because all too often, it’s associated with “suits” who invade an organization with so-called best practices, lay off half the team, and leave the survivors to deal with the aftermath. And despite being the go-to solution, it frequently fails to successfully implement organizational change in the long-term—especially when it focuses on slogans and rallies about making change, rather than introducing new behaviors that make a real difference to teams’ day-to-day work. 

That’s why we took the opposite approach, applying a more agile, iterative change process to problems like restructures. Quite frankly, it was painful, ineffective, and it frustrated leaders. They had a desired outcome in mind, but constant tinkering wasn’t getting them where they wanted to go. We quickly realized that traditional change management is a fine approach when applied to the right challenges—it’s just over-applied to most challenges organizations face.

In situations where the transformation process impacts the entire organization at once, and where changes are painful to undo, it’s important to get change initiatives right the first time to prevent damaging the organization. Adjustments and reversals only make things worse: imagine, for example, an organization that goes through a restructure every other month.

The good news is that even though these changes are riskier to carry out, there are usually only a few options to choose from. And while there may not be one perfect option, there are probably better or worse solutions. For instance, despite consultants reinventing the “matrix” organization every few years, there are really only a few structures in which to organize teams.

Of course, we still put our own spin on the transformation process. Whereas traditional consultants might disappear into a back room to map out the future state of the organization, for instance, we may involve executive leaders in the creation of the solution.

The Four Stages of Fail-Safe Organizational Change Management

First, we bring the leadership team together to evaluate options. We put together some initial drafts so that the team has something to react to. In the case of a restructure, for instance, we might have an organizational structure for “region” vs. “product.” Then, we facilitate as the team redesigns and creates alternatives.

Next, we explore trade-offs involved in each option. Most organizations get in trouble when they focus on “fail-safe” solutions that attempt to fix everything, rather than the right thing. So we ask the leadership team to determine, based on the organization’s future growth plans, what each option excels at. How does it fail? What other changes could we implement to minimize those failures? 

We align on a decision. For truly momentous decisions, it’s essential for leaders to fully understand their choice and present a united front. We run “pre-mortems” and other exercises to anticipate and address potential problems in advance, and ask leaders for potential objections to a course of action. If they believe the result will fundamentally hurt the business, we work with them to design a solution they believe reduces risk. But if they don’t personally prefer the decision, we ask them to “disagree and commit.” 

Finally, we plan the roll out the transformation plan while reducing change resistance. This includes both implementation and communication plans. Unfortunately, leaders get distracted from organizational change initiatives because they have to triage the next thing, but then a year later, wonder why they’re still experiencing the same problems. Developing a clear roadmap makes sure organizational changes actually happen, rather than getting trapped in a committee room.

Organizational Transformation through Safe-to-Fail Changes

Fortunately, most organizational change—whether that’s implementing new business strategies, introducing new technologies, or new processes like onboarding or all-hands meetings—can be reversed without much cost or harm. In fact, they actually benefit from rapid experimentation, allowing them to adjust based on feedback and changing conditions. 

Which brings us to the other stereotype of change management consultants: the solutions they recommend are things that the team already knows—or worse, that team knows won’t work. This results in the rank-and-file getting demoralized as they see money being spent on very expensive, very ineffective consultants, often while they’re forced to argue for additional headcount for their overworked teams. 

In reality, the people who do the work on a daily basis, those closest to their customers, already have great insight into what the organization needs to perform at its best. Of course it’s possible that they’re wrong—just as it’s possible for outside consultants to be wrong—but it’s an informed opinion, and more often than not, there’s a germ of a great idea there. So that’s where we start a change effort: by simply asking teams what they’ve always wanted to try. 

We’ve designated this type of business transformation as “safe-to-fail,” and we have to admit, we think this approach is what’s led to such high rates of successful organizational change.

The Four Stages of Safe-to-Fail Organizational Change Management

First, we designate “Squads” to lead the organizational change. To make sure we’re getting a diverse organizational perspective, we build a truly cross-functional team of change leaders, including representatives from different departments and different tenures at the organization. At the same time, as we bring together those who typically wouldn’t work on the same projects, it gives them greater insights into the broader challenges the organization is facing. As a result, the members of the Squad quickly become change ambassadors, spreading information and new ways of working naturally.

Next, we empower Squads to implement organizational change. We introduce the challenge and ask the team how they want to try solving it. Surprisingly, even among teams of senior leaders, this often confuses them. Teams are so used to being directed to do something, or they’ve had their hand slapped when trying something new, that they hesitate. So our first goal is to get them to believe that this organizational change initiative is a major opportunity to try new things, and that “failure” is really learning.

We then coach Squads through testing and learning from different solutions. Every week, we work alongside Squads as they figure out what new way of working or business practices they want to test, what’s not working for them, and how they can troubleshoot it. In addition, we also teach teams new skills, like how to facilitate meetings or skateboard a solution. 

Finally, we scale the organizational change. Only once we’ve tested a potential solution do we start to spread it to other parts of the organization. If it continues to succeed, we’ll create a playbook or Center of Excellence to continue to instill these practices in the organization for the long-term. But just as importantly, the systematic approach to business transformation stays with the team, making them more adaptive over time.

Integrating the Different Types of Change Management

Most organizational change management programs involve both types of change, as well as a way to continually connect the dots between the initiatives. For example, to create a more customer-centric organizational culture, corporate leaders may decide to reorganize the team to focus on critical customer segments (a fail-safe change). This may be necessary, but it’s not sufficient: to see actual changes in organizational performance, they must also redesign their decision-making processes to include more customer feedback and insights (a safe-fail change).

In order to reach their desired future state, our transformation process stitches these changes together. The most critical component is frequent communication, which might look like:

  • Asking people to share what they’ve learned in weekly scrum meetings. Maybe they’ve developed a new strategic brief process, or had an interaction with a client that indicated a new market opportunity. These frequent touch points are opportunities to spread learnings within an organization, and encourage employees to seek out further information.
  • Holding Learning Roundtables every month. These are moments for different Squads or teams to come together to provide insight into what they’ve learned, and the progress they’ve made on the change initiative.
  • Facilitating retrospectives every quarter to evaluate what’s working, what’s not, and what organizational changes they want to try next. This encourages people to reflect on the work, rather than just carrying on with “business as usual.”

What Achieving Successful Organizational Transformation Looks Like

Once we started applying these principles, we saw a dramatic increase in successful organizational change, as clients better understood how the different change initiatives we were making impacted each other. Some of the results we’ve seen have included:

  • Uncovering $15MM in new revenue
  • Increasing productivity 27%
  • Identifying $250K in cost savings each year
  • Avoiding an unnecessary reorg

If you’re interested in actually implementing change within your organization, get in touch to learn more.

Published March 4, 2022

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