When individuals are hired by members of a struggling organization to a leadership role, we often hear the value of culture change as a necessary step for a return to organizational success. If an organization is nothing more than the collective capacity of its people to create value, than a change in potential is a necessary element to adapt to a highly competitive and growing environment. It is difficult to know for sure what must of been going through the mind of early stakeholders or leaders tasked with transforming struggling organizations. However, through the work of research and the observations of various organizations we are beginning to understand the anatomy of organizational change and the various factors necessary for its successful initiation, implementation and institutionalization.
Michael Fullan, an expert in leadership and change, along with the work of various researchers help to provide insight to the anatomy of organizational transformation and provide us a glimpse of how teams mired in failure can find success.
If it was possible to relegate the complex elements of change to three words the most likely culprits would be goals, collaboration and leadership.
The essence of an organization or a system composed of value adding processes is built on the foundation of:
- “Closing the gap” to an overarching goal
- Recognizing strategies that focus on effective communication and action
- Improving the ability to leverage leadership within its system.
Understanding these three guidelines helps to summarize the multi-dimensional nature of change.
Step 1: Closing the gap as the or to an overarching Goal
In attempting to understand what took place in the early phases of change we must first recognize that change is unique, non-linear and does not follow clear, rigid rules. However, we can be certain of a few fundamental elements such as establishing meaning. Meaningful change is preceded by determining meaning. Acquiring meaning is an important individual and organizational pursuit if it is to be successful. Fullan states that “acquiring meaning is achieved across a group of people working in concert. This is perhaps one of the most important lessons to be drawn from Fullan’s explanation of change. In this explanation he demonstrates the importance of establishing a plan and communicating said plan to parts of the organization. Acquiring meaning is the first step in creating a plan. A plan inherently has a starting point and an objective. Acquiring meaning drives us to close the gap or reach the objective of a plan. If the theory of change emerging at this point leads us to conclude that we need better plans and planners, we are embarking on the infinite regress that characterizes the pursuit of a theory of “changing”. Closing the gap requires self – reflection or the ability to ask difficult questions, challenge norms and understand methods aimed at its construction. Understanding the anatomy for change is perhaps the most important and valuable lesson before undertaking change. As Fullan states “we need to explain not only what causes it but also how to influence those causes”. Just like physics is a foundation for engineering, knowledge of change has been a foundation for innovation and the ability to create change. In creating change we recognize that questions that begin with
- What if
are important to know.
These questions, give us the ability to determine meaning, objective and the abilities to close the gap of an established objective.
Step 2: Recognize the value of strategies that are socially based and action oriented
They also recognize that change is a cyclical process, that requires constant genuine discussion based on data driven assessments. Authors have argued that Change leadership (or the interplay between artful leadership and organization management) is necessary for developing an organizations culture and is an essential component for developing new core capabilities needed to compete in a global, high tech world (Mcguire, 2006). Fullan demonstrates that trust and cohesion between parts of an organization is important for its success and operation especially when undertaking the complexities of change. Communication across boundaries allow for greater potential in understanding one another as well as acquire meaning in oneself or the group. Social discussions allow various elements to share and increase value in one another. In order to display this value, action is needed. A good strategy toward this goal is to begin and end a day with a meeting. There is a firm understanding that discussion built on trust and cohesion allows us to make appropriate decisions as well as actions to reach our planned goals when provided with good information.
Step 3: Stay the course of good direction through continually leveraging leadership.
Experience shows that change occurs from or with the support of a position of leadership. Fullan states that individuals in leadership positions within an organization such as chief administrators or central distract staff are critical sources of advocacy, support and imitation of new programs. This observation is no different from the occurrences of sports organizations which are often run by senior officials such as a general manager or chief executive officer. They may not be the catalyst for change, but they are certainly important resources for advocacy and support in change. The messaging of advocacy, communicated from the general manager is a constant reminder for those individuals new to change within the organization. They also help to recognize the importance of establishing key stakeholders in facilitating change or leveraging leadership. Leveraging leadership provides individuals with purpose and meaning in their roles but also empowers their positions and perspectives.
In establishing change we recognize that that each instance of change is unique. In other words, when discussing change, we must be mindful that it exists as an individual quality from other episodes of change. This can be the result of its multifactorial nature. As authors have suggested there are no hard-and-fast rules to change but rather a set of suggestions for how change can occur. Generally speaking, we know that change requires us to establish meaning, collaborate and leverage leadership.
Fullan, M. (2016). The new meaning of educational change. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
McGuire, J. (2003). Leadership strategies for culture change: Developing change leadership as an organization core capability. Orlando, Florida: Center for Creative Leadership.
Young, Y. (2006). Mindset. Brighton: Pen Press.