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By Martin Daffner

Why leaders should stop trying to drive organizational change and focus on the Individual Change

May 2021

As the impact of the COVID-19 eruption continues to creep across our organizational operating models like a slow-moving lava flow, more and more leaders are wrestling directly with the need to successfully implement change. Despite the keys to success being both clear and unanimous the business world struggles to do this well and consistently (see some great data from McKinsey on this topic.) I had a conversation just this week with a leader from Shanghai Disney who mentioned the increasing frequency of organizational change, with new changes coming nearly quarterly... a change rate that would have been inconceivable 18 months ago.

So what's a business leader to do? How do we get our arms around this need to pivot, pivot pivot while maintaining the sense of security and emotional safety critical to all high performance organizations?

We start by recognizing that our challenge is NOT at the organizational level, it's at the individual level.

Starting with this fundamentally different approach will significantly increase our ability to succeed not only in this specific change, but future changes to come... and they are coming. Organizational Change teams and initiatives can often start off on the wrong foot by trying to address the challenges at the organizational level. These programs generally include mass communication approaches like townhall meetings and often focus on classroom or workshop-style trainings on change implementation. The critical flaw here is that these approaches assume everyone experience the same change at the same moment in the same way. In fact, the individuals we're asking to led the change are also experiencing the change in their own way, so the tools, skills and guidance each may need are unique to their situation. Empowering change at the individual level is the key to developing the organizational reliance and agility required to handle the increasing change frequency.

The individuals we're asking to led the change are also experiencing the change in their own way

While it's tempting to believe we're helping the organization and individuals by bringing in the change management consultants and driving the PMO side of the change implementation, we may be focused on measuring the wrong indicators. These organizational change initiatives often do a great job achieving the visible artifacts of the change, but are generally less successful in realizing both the desired business and organizational benefits that prompted the change in the first place.

Consider Roger, the HR VP at a large MNC in APAC, who was struggling to understand why the implementation of the new dual reporting matrix structure wasn’t driving any change in focus, results or behaviors visible to senior leadership. The org chart was changed... the change initiative was complete and we have the visible artifact to prove it... the new org chart had been implemented. But even after changing that and the bonus scheme in an effort to get to a common set of KPI’s, there didn’t appear to be any tangible results.

To try and get to the bottom of this, Roger and team interviewed more than 50 individuals across functions in the organization, they discovered that while everyone knew why the changes were being made, no one really knew how to work differently. They were left to figure out how to implement them on their own, and although they were doing the best they could, they were clearly struggling. Many expressed disappointment in their inability to figure out how to do what they knew they were supposed to, and took full responsibility - yet they were reluctant to ask for help, as it might make them seem like they weren’t qualified to do their job.

The reality is that there is no classroom training that certifies leaders on the new way of working in their specific role, in their specific country/location for their specific firm working for their specific boss. There’s no manual to cover all this and when organizations try to create the manual the bureaucracy overload can be crippling. The solution lies in accepting that individuals need to wrestle with this in situ, and that this often requires support. Resist the temptation to “give them the answer” and start asking a better question… How can we truly help them find their own answer? Focus on that, and you’ll not only get through one change, but you’ll build the muscles to get through countless changes which are surely on the horizon.

Resist the temptation to “give them the answer” and start asking a better question… How can we truly help them find their own answer?

The table below shows three individuals experiencing the exact same organizational change at the exact same time. All are in a different place and moment in their personal change journey. They all need a different kind of support, tools and guidance. Attempting to leverage workshop-style events alone won't provided much help to at least two out of the three, and often fail to really help even one of our three as the messaging isn't tailored to anyone... it's tailored to the organization, not the individual.

The implementation of this individual focused approach varies by organization, culture, scope of the change and many other factors, but there are a few consistent elements regardless of these many variables:

1. Identify the key leadership roles required to both drive the change and effectively communicate (2-way communication) with the organization. Note that the focus here is on the role more than the person.

2. Identify the individual needs for each role to be successful quickly. Now we're looking much more closely at both the role AND the person.

3. Prioritize the accelerating behaviors that can best be leveraged to help the specific individual in the specific role for this specific change. (We've started to develop a library of these and have noticed that they consistently connect back the to the Critical to Success Factors.)

Following these basic steps can help leadership ensure they are empowering the people that need to drive the change, which will build the capacity to not only get through the change at hand, but also ensure we're developing the organizational reliance and agility required to handle the increasing change frequency. This isn't easy, but it's well worth the extra effort.

Martin was born in Montana, USA and have lived and worked in three continents and five countries. Martin has spent the last 15 years in Asia. As an organizational leader and professor, Martin’s passion has always been building and developing talent... one relationship at a time. Martin is fascinated by the ability of individuals and teams to harness a growth mindset, creativity, risk taking and personal relationships to achieve the incredible, both personally and professionally.

Sign up for Martin’s Growing Organizational Agility Workshop here