Michelle  Wolfaardt

The Road to Ongoing Change as Part of Your Organisation's DNA

When asked what I like about my job as a Change Consultant, I used to say that I enjoyed being part of the 'highlights' in an organisation's journey, the times of change to improve their way of working and to realise the associated benefits. I saw these as the exciting times, sometimes even paradigm shifts, interspersed by longer periods of stability and business as usual. In today's world though, with information at clients' fingertips, ongoing technical innovation creating better client experiences, and with greater competition between companies than ever before, organisations need to continually improve and raise their game. Change is no longer a 'highlight' in an organisation's journey, it has become the norm. Where before change was an anomaly and organisations were geared towards stability, they now need to be geared to function smoothly and effectively in the face of constant change. This requires a shift in leaders' and employees' mindsets, values and beliefs regarding their work environment and how to succeed in that environment, as well as a change in the organisation's support structures and ways of working. Ongoing change and adaptability need to become part of the organisation's culture or DNA. How then can we leverage our knowledge of cultural change to entrench change itself as the norm? This article explores a few ideas in this regard.

A side-note on Culture

There are various definitions of culture. For the purposes of this article, culture refers to the shared meaning, interpretations, values, beliefs and norms that guide behaviour in an organisation (adapted from Mats Alvesson and Stefan Sveningsson, Changing Organisational Culture, 2007). Given the internal and deep-set nature of beliefs etc., culture change may take time and it is important to align messages that appeal to employees' sense of reason and beliefs with structural, system and process changes that support a shorter-term shift in behaviours and norms, which in turn reinforce beliefs. Let's look briefly at both aspects for entrenching change as part of the company's DNA.

Building awareness and support:

The Road to Ongoing Change as Part of Your Organisation's DNA Informatics

1. Identifying and committing to the need for change

One of the first steps is for business leaders to understand and commit to the need for constant change and a more adaptable organisation, given today's fast-changing environment, and to link this to the organisation's strategic objectives and future success. Thoren notes that "organisations that don't manage to make the shift will slowly get weaker and die, and the ones that do transform to a new culture and structure, more adapted to the needs of today's and tomorrow's... economy, will survive and flourish" (Thoren, Agile People, p. 66). In addition, leaders need to identify the high-level changes required in the way the organisation currently functions to achieve this goal. This may then be unpacked and incorporated into the strategies of various business units or departments to ensure alignment.

2. Executive Support

Executive support is key, not only in building change agility into the organisation's strategic objectives (above) but also in visibly supporting, enabling and reinforcing the change. Executives often understand the theoretical need for change but for various reasons do not 'walk the talk' as shown, for example, when they fail to allocate resources such as time and funding to the initiatives that enable effective change. Executives at various levels need to internalise and personally commit to supporting ongoing change within their areas, as evident both through their words and actions.

3. Sharing the new reality with staff

While people may be dealing with significant change, a shift may be needed in the way they see this change – from being something that may pass, to being the new 'business as usual'. Employees need to understand the need for, and inevitability of ongoing and significant flux in businesses today, and what this means for them as employees. What are the new behaviours and characteristics required for success? In addition to sharing these high-level messages, Sabapathy suggests defining desired values in a way that people understand and can relate to day-to-day behaviour – "Come up with behavioural descriptors for each value you define and articulate how those would translate into actionable behaviours at all levels" of the organisation (Christina Folz, How to Change your Organisational Culture, 2016). For front-line staff, this may include, for example, taking the initiative to learn about upcoming changes, prioritising tasks effectively, adopting change and proactively seeking assistance where required. Communications may also reinforce key messages such as the importance of resilience and determination, while also offering feedback and support mechanisms to understand and address questions or concerns. Staff may be encouraged to identify innovative ways of enabling adaptability in their environment, tapping into the power of the idea that 'people support what they help to create' (Mary Kay Ash).

The above activities help build awareness and support regarding 'change as the new norm', but this needs to be supported by an alignment of the organisation's structures, processes and work systems to avoid sending mixed messages and creating confusion.

Aligning processes, structures and work systems:

1. Processes

There is no real secret formula to inspire change within an organisation but there are some fundamental approaches that will help the organisation and the affected individuals to accept and embrace the changes within the organisation and the workplace.

Processes related to the employee life-cycle, from entry to exit, may be assessed and realigned where appropriate, for example:

  1. Hiring - Organisations may now look to hire people who are adaptable and resilient, comfortable with a degree of uncertainty, and who are proactive in their approach to learning and change. The reality of ongoing change and the need to adapt can also be set as an expectation upfront with potential and new employees.
  2. Training - If change is now almost a constant and staff are expected to continuously adapt, would it perhaps be useful to build time into their business-as-usual work routines to keep up with the learning associated with ongoing change? This is similar in principle to scheduling regular engagements to share the latest information with teams and it helps prevent frequent ad hoc training from causing additional unplanned pressure for employees on top of their usual workload. In addition to training courses to build the skills required for specific changes, it may also help to offer informal training or tips and hints for building the personal skills required to be successful in today's environment, including resilience and resourcefulness etc.
  3. Measurement, Performance Management and Rewards - I have been on projects where adoption is hampered by 'slow-to-change' measurement and reward processes. Staff are expected to start using a new system to open accounts for example, but their performance and associated rewards are still based on how many accounts they open on the old system. This results in conflicting priorities and slower adoption. Organisations that need to change quickly need agile systems that can be adapted quickly to support the change. There should be the capability for required new behaviours to be incorporated into performance measurement, management and reward processes as soon as possible. In addition, it may also be useful to consider including new values or behaviours such as speed of change adoption into performance management and personal development processes

2. Organisation Structures

Organisation structures themselves may need to change to enable easier re-alignment and integration of change across the organisation and to allow for a faster pace of change. Hierarchical structures with a high degree of bureaucracy may impede agility compared to networked structures that enable greater autonomy (Thoren, Agile People, 2017). Similarly, a lack of integration or alignment either horizontally across departments or business units, or vertically through different levels of the organisation may be a barrier to successful adoption of change. This speaks to governance processes, communication flows or the sharing of information, as well as physical structures.

3. Systems

As mentioned in relation to measurement, ongoing change in an organisation needs to be enabled and supported by agile modern systems that are relatively quick and easy to adapt. With older, less agile systems, ongoing change may be enabled in various other aspects of the organisation but hindered if the supporting technology cannot quickly and easily be re-aligned to support the change.

4. A note on Change Management

Lastly, Change Management practices may need to adapt. Where before companies largely employed temporary Change Management consultants to drive individual projects as needed, there has been an increasing focus over many years on building strong, in-house Change Management capabilities to drive change, supported by temporary Change consultants. As noted by Prosci (Enterprise Change Management), leading organisations are "shifting their focus from a project-by-project application of change management toward institutionalizing change management practices, processes, capabilities and competencies". Effectively, "managing the people side of change... becomes a core competency, competitive differentiator and cultural value of the organisation". This involves making Change Management the norm on projects and initiatives, and having a strong, organisation-wide Change Management capability that effectively filters to all levels of the organisation, and that includes an element of consistency. To explain my use of the word 'consistency' - the need for faster-paced change in an Agile sense means that Change Management is becoming more intuitive and context-dependant, and less structured according to formal approaches and tools. While a strong Enterprise Change Management capability ensures that strong resources, skills, processes and tools are commonly available, and that effective Change Management is consistently implemented, there may be a move away from adhering to set Change Management 'recipes' to adapting and using Change tools as appropriate for a specific change. The focus should be on making change as simple and intuitive as possible for impacted stakeholders.

This is a common, but not an exhaustive, list of factors or levers that may be taken into account to enable ongoing change, and each organisation may have its own considerations. The key though is to ensure alignment and consistency across the various 'levers' in an organisation. The values that Executives drive and the messages that employees hear about ongoing change should be consistent with the behaviours that are reinforced through processes such as measurement, performance management and rewards. They should also be enabled and supported by effective, agile organisational structures and systems that can process and adapt to change effectively. Lastly, the way we manage change should become a serious consideration and differentiator in order for organisations to remain successful. In today's world, change needs to become part of an organisation's culture or DNA, and this may be supported by aligning various levers, such as those outlined above, to help entrench change as the new norm.