Lessons Learned from the Front Lines of Organization Transformation

Mark Henderson has many years of consulting practice and has seen organization transformation from both sides of the desk. Here, he sums up all of the salient, important lessons he has learned over the years as battle-scarred veteran of the organization change and improvement race.

There are no quick, easy, or simple answers. However, there are recurring patterns and themes that pervade successful change and improvement efforts. Success does tend to leave clues, often in the form of general principles and patterns (frequently derived from the more painful experiences, it seems).

Lessons Learned

  • Create a clear, compelling, and concise picture of the future vision and strategic direction. Clarity of focus accelerates progress and an elusive big picture stunts forward movement. The CEO of a large US healthcare system, driving her organization toward a focus on wellness, prevention, and delivery of patient care in alternative (read lower cost) settings from the hospital, started the transformation journey with this rather vivid statement: “We will be successful when I can walk down the halls of this hospital (it had over 500 beds) and there are no patients.”
  • Communicate broadly, deeply, and consistently, and be sure to cover the “why” element as often as possible. Funny, but people want to know not just where they’re headed but also why — don’t forget to make that abundantly clear. Hint: data is imperative to improvement; it is the platform upon which decisions must be made and minds can be changed — continually seek out unbiased performance data from the market, customers, employees, and suppliers, and share it widely. One organization facing the prospect of industry deregulation and the introduction of customer choice for service provision talked about the need for substantial organizational change because their newfound competitors “are peeking through the fence looking to take away our customers.” The implication was clear — if we don’t change and do a better job serving our customers, someone else will be only too happy to do so for us.
  • Deploy a common planning framework. Using an established roadmap makes the trip much smoother. In multi-unit business environments, ensure the improvement framework accommodates Business Unit specific flexibility in implementation. There are any number of proven frameworks out there, so don’t reinvent the wheel.
  • Utilize education, training, and skill development as a major change driver. Forget debating whether behavior changes follow belief changes or vices versa — either way, new ideas, new competencies, and capabilities will be required. The jury is no longer out on this issue — the best organizations simply spend more time and money on education and training, and that is one critical reason why they sustain superior performance levels. GE is the best-of-the-best for a reason.
  • Shift cultural and individual performance orientation by adjusting performance measures (like the Balanced Scorecard, for example) and holding people accountable for specific results — integrate this directly into your performance management system. Management truism 101: what gets measured gets done. Trite, but true.
  • Link reward and recognition practices to the cultural change; look for quick wins and celebrate widely. Management truism 102: what gets rewarded gets repeated. Also trite, but true.
  • Alignment is fundamentally the name of the game. Organizational “influence systems” must consistently and continuously be aligned with change and improvement initiatives. As Steve Kerr, Chief Learning Officer of GE once shrewdly observed, don’t ask for A while paying, promoting, rewarding, recognizing, measuring, training, etc. for B. It happens all too frequently (moving to teams and still rewarding individual lone wolves, anybody?).
  • Organization transformation is a project and should be resourced as such. Some amount of infrastructure and process is necessary or daily operations crowd out even the best-intentioned improvement efforts, hands down. Ownership, accountability, a plan, and a process are keys to success. Without some infrastructure (not a bureaucracy!), the organization will continue to be held hostage to the urgent over the important.
  • Senior leadership sponsorship is critical — developing the next level of sustaining sponsorship “change advocates” is equally vital. Take care of the advocates and cherish the revolutionaries who drive the change process. Don’t let the courageous trailblazers be driven down and out by the guardians of the status quo.
  • Manage expectations every step of the way. People and organizations don’t change nearly as fast as we would like, but the change agenda can and should be pursued aggressively. The most common refrain from Client executives when reflecting on the journey: “I should have moved faster, I should have pushed harder, driven the change further.” As quality improvement guru Dr. Joseph Juran said, set a revolutionary not a pedestrian pace.
  • Strategic, cross-functional processes are the source of untold opportunity and value — optimize their performance by systematically analyzing and improving them. Hint: your structure was probably not designed with process flow in mind, and at this intersection lays opportunity.
  • Establish a strong results-driven, not activity-centered orientation. Results-based leadership of change and improvement always generates more supporters, creates momentum, and self-funds further efforts. And remember, management and improvement tools, practices, and methods are means to an end, not an end themselves. Don’t be dogmatic, don’t let the tail (i.e the tool) wag the dog. Stay flexible: change and improvement are always a “work in progress.”

So there you have it. A list of the most relevant lessons learned from years in the trenches. Hopefully for those of you driving to make meaningful change happen in your organization, you will find some helpful hints you can draw from. Or maybe you’ll simply take some small comfort that your fellow change champions have had similar learning experiences (both and good bad).

Taken from an article by Mark Henderson. Abridged.

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