My Top 10 Lessons in Making Organizational Change Succeed

This week at work I heard the phrase “just because you didn’t plan well, that doesn’t make it my emergency.”  It brought me back to my last job where seemingly everything was an emergency due to lack of planning. We were launching 300-400 different products every year and most of them got out the door only with sheer grit and determination at the 11th hour.  There was no plan on what to launch, why to launch a particular product and how to launch the products successfully.  They had been amazingly successful despite this based on some amazing products and an amazing team who was committed to putting in the effort required to make it happen despite the barriers in their way.  This approach brought a lot of good:  a camaraderie within the team, a commitment level within the people to succeed, and an amazing creative spirit to solve what seemed to be unsurmountable problems.  With those good things, came many bad: higher costs of manufacturing, excess inventory costs, incomplete retail launch plans due to insufficient time, ineffective marketing plans given limited lead time for planning and perhaps most importantly – organizational stress and pain.

So, the senior leadership team set on a journey to introduce business and marketing plans to this team.  And, when I say journey, I mean journey…an ever-winding journey.  Our goal was to evolve to a company with a plan so that our launches would be more successful and our business more successful.  We talked a lot about doing this while maintaining the strengths that the organization demonstrated throughout its history.  It sounded good, and per all of the business school lessons and the experience our management team had in prior companies, it should’ve worked.

What I underestimated, and can only see clearly in arrears, is how the culture of this company impacted the degree of change that would be accepted.  The culture was built as an entrepreneurial startup team – doing anything needed to make things successful.  It was built for variety, unpredictability and wacky, late stage brilliant ideas winning the day.  Even the slightest move toward an annual operating plan felt so imposing to this team.  Their skills were not set up to succeed in this environment and it not only felt overwhelming, but it did the exact opposite of what we desired.  We simply doubled the pain.  Now, there was a fair amount of organizational stress and strife about the product planning process in addition to the stress (and cost) we incurred for late-stage changes that put our shipment dates at risk.  So – double the pain, no gain.

Ultimately this journey was one of the factors that made me leave this job.  Sitting here 5 years later, after hearing someone refer this week to a lack of planning driving unnecessary organizational stress and cost, I wonder out loud (is that possible on a blog?) what lessons I have learned (mostly through mistakes) in the last five years about introducing change into a team or company.  Nothing like a list to make you think about it.

My top 10 lessons in Change Management:

  1. Don’t underestimate the story of an organization. This story often time helps you uncover the culture, the values that the team lives by and the strengths the organization has to help you succeed.
  2. That said, don’t be scared of change.
  3. If people don’t understand the reason for the change, the context as to why it is important, and they don’t buy-in, the change will not be broadly successful.
  4. Just because something is written in a textbook or theoretically the right thing to do, doesn’t mean it will work.
  5. Having a plan is important….being willing to adjust the plan as it meets barriers is essential.
  6. Creating allies in your change, particularly those with high organizational influence, is critical for your success.
  7. Don’t just change for change’s sake. You don’t have to make your impact through large change and innovation. Strength is often found in accepting what already is and making minor improvements that drive high value.
  8. Be inquisitive in everything that you do.  There is most often a great rationale for why things are as they are, and understanding this rationale will help necessary change be adopted more smoothly.
  9. Every person accepts change through the lens of their personality. Identifying an individual’s state of mind and meeting each where they enter a conversation on change will help reduce fear of change.
  10. There isn’t one way things should happen. Your way is often wrong, and can be made better through leveraging the strengths of the people around you.

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