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Organizational change’s missing piece

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As someone wiser than me pointed out, every organization is perfectly designed to get the results it gets.

As someone exactly as wise as I am (that is to say, me) has been known to point out, change happens when someone in a position to do something about a situation has concluded that how their organization does things isn’t good enough.

If you’re that person, do a bit of Googling (or, I suppose, Bing-ing) and you’ll find lots of alternatives for designing an organizational change, including such disciplines as Lean, Six Sigma, Lean Six Sigma, Process Re-engineering, and the Theory of Constraints.

Assuming you choose a change discipline that fits what you’re trying to accomplish, each of these can deliver a change design that can work.

Do a bit more Googling or Bing-ing and you’ll find a complementary change discipline called OCM – Organizational Change Management – whose purpose is to discover and mitigate barriers to organizational change. It’s essential if you want your intended change to become an accomplished change.

Try to make the change happen, though, and you might discover there’s something in the plan that’s either too ambitious, or not ambitious enough.

If it’s too ambitious you’ll find the first chunk of organizational change is too complicated by half – what’s often described as changing the plane’s engine while you’re still in flight.

Or, worse, you’re trying to convert your biplane into a single-wing aircraft without first landing.

When your chosen starting point is at the opposite end of the continuum – when it isn’t ambitious enough – it goes by the orchardarian monicker “low hanging fruit.”

Going after low-hanging fruit is a popular consulting recommendation. It’s usually a mistake because it creates the illusion of forward progress while failing to set the stage for additional forward progress. Extending the metaphor, go after low-hanging fruit and you’ll find you’re clutching a lemon in your left fist and a tree branch in your right, all while you’re trying to avoid falling off your ladder.

Or, because metaphors don’t (speaking of metaphors) build a very good foundation for a logical edifice, let’s make it real: achieve a quick win and you’re left without a plan for what happens next.

Quick wins deliver the illusion of progress, but with no momentum or trajectory.

The missing piece

Quick win proponents get one thing right – that the hardest part of most intended changes is getting started. What they fail to recognize is that staying started is harder than getting started.

We might call what’s needed a “Quick Win Plus.” Like a quick win, a quick win plus gets the change started by making a small, manageable, clearly envisionable change.

Unlike a quick win, the change a quick win plus accomplishes is one that deliberately includes ripple effects – dependencies that encourage additional changes elsewhere in the organization. Especially, they’ll encourage creation or improvement of a few competencies critical to ongoing success – that will, that is, encourage additional beneficial changes.

Some changes don’t fit this mold – they just can’t, for one reason or another, be decomposed into a swarm of small, independent alterations in how work gets done. These big, complicated changes are the ones that call for disciplined, experienced project management and diversion of staff from their day-to-day responsibilities to full or nearly full commitment to the project team.

Bob’s last word: The way the business world is evolving, big, complicated organizational change is becoming decreasingly feasible. Battle-tested project managers have always been in short supply, while the staffing levels needed for traditional project-managed change are higher than most businesses are able to sustain.

Which is why so many organizations are gravitating to agile-oriented, iterative and incremental change methods.

The quick-change-plus approach fits this thought process well.

Bob’s sales pitch: I can only wish I’d had anything to do with Good Night Oppy. It’s the story of the Spirit and Opportunity Mars rovers. You must watch it – then you’ll wish you’d been a part of it too.

It’s simply wonderful – a very human story, brilliantly told. And after you watch it I can pretty much guarantee you’ll be telling your friends that they must watch it too.

Now on CIO.com’s CIO Survival Guide: Why IT surveys can’t be trusted for strategic decisions.” It’s an accurate title.

Comments (4)

  • DuckDuckGoing!

  • Hi Bob,

    I love the idea of quick win plus. Quick wins are the bane of my (professional) existence.

    The issue that I run into is lack of vision for the overall effort. When a change effort is run using “schmagile”, it just becomes a series of quick wins, then it finishes at a place that delivers much lower value than was possible because they wasted time picking too many apples, and now have no path to progress.

    The ambitious change project becomes an incremental waste of time. The person who thinks things aren’t good enough must apply some vision and leadership or this is where they end up.

  • Hi Bob,

    Great article.

    But, it seems to me that the choice of low-hanging fruit+ must be the result of some very high level, and very shrewd intense, but collaborative, analysis.

    It would seem to be a required, but very tall order for all but the very best run organizations.

    • I’m not sure it’s such a tall order. The key is to identify the QW+’s ripple effects and deciding which of them will also be desirable. I think this would be well within the skillset of an average business analyst.

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