Organisational change – when is the right time?
Updated: Mar 3, 2019
When I first did my change management training, one of the surprising things I discovered in the opening pages of the handbook they give you, was Charles Handy's sigmoid curve from 'The Empty Raincoat'. Its bottom line was simple: successful organisations implement change when they are still in the growth mode and long before they plateau or show signs of decline.
What I thought at the time was that this went against our typical response - we change as a reaction to circumstance, rather than in anticipation of it. Subsequent experience has shown me I was right - most of the time change is reactive and tardy.
Charles Handy was also right - successful organisations don't wait around till a crisis strikes, before they effect change. Yet, this is often the case, which means that the change process becomes a case of hastily executed turnaround or a long, painful and fear driven journey of renewal with uncertain results and slow growth. In public sector, failure to anticipate change - an inherent affliction - results in wasted taxpayers' money and outcomes for the general public which simply miss the mark.
When is the right time to implement change then?
In my view, the answer is - always. The change adaptive mindset needs to become the pinnacle of an organisation, regardless of whether it's private, public or third sector.
The question is, how do we drive this organisational transformation in times of prosperity, when there doesn't seem to be a clear rationale for it?
When fear isn't a motivating factor, an aspirational vision, which captures a strategic intent and is emotionally compelling, is a good start. A vision which is underpinned by the organisational values and linked with its core identity, can provide a strong platform to introduce changes to structure, processes, behaviours and performance measures, which staff will be on board with.
Whilst this might seem banal a suggestion, practice shows it is not - and it is often overlooked. Too often, change is pinned upon strategic objectives or performance indicators, which makes sense rationally, but fail to convey the bigger picture of what better performance means for the future of the organisation and its customers.
Naturally, this is just the beginning of a change design. An emotionally engaging, aspirational vision needs to be linked with the organisational strategy and owned bottom-up and top-down through carefully designed implementation and robust evaluation, which are a topic for another article.
Before we get to it, however, some of the initial questions which an organisation might ask itself before embarking on a change project are: Is our vision for growth based only on exploiting our existing core offer? Have we put processes in place to optimise and adapt it to maximally leverage our strengths and match customer needs? Are there emerging trends in our sector or customer base which could present a challenge or a threat? Are there opportunities beyond our current offer?
I frequently come across references between organisational development and evolutionary biology. There is a truth to it – the logic of variation-selection-retention can certainly be applied to the process of innovation involved in the survival and evolution of many organisations. The trick though seems to be for this process to be more than a response to the changing environment, but rather – a pre-emptive state of readiness to explore.