Principles for creating change at scale

May 30, 2012

Change is essential to the continued vitality of humanity and our institutions. Yet it can be so difficult for people to change. Even when we know we need to change, we often find it so difficult to let go of what we are, what we believe, what we do, and what we have. This is even more difficult for organizations – particularly large organizations consisting of thousands of people with so many different interests, values, beliefs, and habits.

Creating change at scale is one of the most common challenges I see in my client work. The architects of an organization – executives that have the authority to design and implement strategies, systems, policies, and procedures – often default to communication and training as the means of effecting change. These are important elements of many change programs but they aren’t sufficient. It isn’t enough for the change to make sense for the organization. It also has to make sense for the individual – rationally and emotionally.

I’m always interested in identifying principles that can help executives improve the success rate of their change efforts. Below are five thoughts I had:

  1. Organizations don’t change, people do. Change is first an individual phenomenon before it becomes a social phenomenon. When you help people see their role in a new way, believe they can create something new, think in an open-minded way about what it will take, and act in a different way, you can create change.
  2. People seek to create coherent stories out of what they see around them – and to find their place in the story. They are enormously sensitive to contradiction. As an organizational architect, you wield control or influence over many factors that affect how people conceive of themselves, their role, and the organization, and how they are actually able to get their work done. For example, you control or influence the behavior of senior executives, the official communication of the organization, how people are rewarded, the way that managers interact with their employees, the tools people have to work with, the physical work environment, and so on. When those factors conflict, they create cynicism and undermine the change effort. When you design systems in which the factors work in harmony, you create the infrastructure for change.
  3. Change is not driven alone by the messages you communicate, the actions you take, or the policies you implement. Change is driven by the sum of the experiences people have of what you say and what you do. When you create experiences that are compelling to the people in your organization, you create the motivation for change.
  4. Change takes time. People look to confirm or disconfirm points of view that they come across and are rarely willing to change because of a one-time event. When you design a system of experiences that unfold over time, you reinforce change.
  5. Employees aren’t just employees. They are first and foremost people. Their experience at work is just one component of their life experience and the choices they make in the work context are really choices they are making about their life. When you fully consider how the change you are trying to create fits within and affects the lives of the people you expect to change, you can better design programs that are relevant and compelling to those people.

I don’t believe there is only one prescription for creating change across all institutions. Each organization has its own ambition, its own history, its own culture. But by grounding change efforts in the reality of human nature and thinking systemically rather than pulling just one or two levers, executives can fully unleash the power of their people to create change.

What have you learned from your experiences about creating change in large organizations?

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