Never before has the rate of change in the world been so dynamic and complex. Ever new technologies, increasing globalization, and influence of social media on society are creating great opportunities, as well as turmoil, for businesses, governments and civic organization. It’s common for organizations to initiate multiple change efforts just to stay relevant. However, constant change easily fragments an organization. Leaders now recognize that their organizations must fundamentally transform to agile entities where change capability is in the DNA. This means fundamental changes to the way the organization and the people in it operate on a daily basis. This transformation is not easy and top-down change approach is still the norm. Typical top managers drive strategic change down through the organization in a step-by-step cascading approach. Occasionally this common approach works, mostly it doesn’t. According to Gallup (David Leonard and Claude Coltea, 2013) 70% of all organization change initiatives fail. Clearly, our approach to leading organizational change is not working.
There are four common symptoms of a failing change effort. First is a slowdown of momentum and excitement after the launch. People are unable to move into action and execution is spotty. Second is a half-hearted commitment. People don’t take ownership of the change process and wait to be told to take action. A third symptom is people feeling the change work is an interruption in doing their “real work”. And a fourth symptom of a failing change effort is when old patterns of behavior reemerge well after the change effort is underway.
In my experience, the reason for most failure is that managers conceive strategies in isolation of both the stakeholders who are impacted by and the employees who carry out the change. Too often the change effort focuses solely on structure and systems while the leaders are caught in a pattern of controlling the change from the top. Inevitably this approach creates resistance in the system; people naturally resist being changed by others. To fix the problem created, change management strategies are crafted to overcome resistance and gain buy-in from disengaged employees.
Initiatives that succeed approach change differently from the beginning. When leaders, employees, customers and other stakeholders come together in the same room to envision the organization’s future and plan the action forward, resistance is replaced with momentum and buy-in is replaced with commitment. The focus is not only on structure and process but also on building the change capability of the organization, leadership capability of people and the resilience of new partnerships. This approach is called whole system change. A whole system change engages the entire organization (or representatives) in undertaking an innovative response to an important organization-wide issue that results in new ways doing business. The results are an organizational culture of commitment, collaboration, and creativity and an organizational strategy viable now and for the future.
Whole system change demands that leaders lead differently. Leaders must trust that their people will make wise decisions. They must trust that stakeholders have the organization’s best interest in mind. They must believe that they cannot single-handedly understand the situation fully, determine the best path forward and control the process. Leaders turn to a whole system change approach once frustrated at not being able to manage a change or overwhelmed at facing a broad complex problem. They understand there is a different way to do change that harnesses the creativity and capability of people. At Collaborative Action, we guide intrepid leaders by laying out a path for involving the whole system in strategic change.