How to Change an Organization Without Blowing It Up

There is a middle ground between wholesale change and tentative pilot projects — and it could allow your organization to operate far more effectively.

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Health-care employees can identify new ways to improve patient care.

Too often, conventional approaches to organizational transformation resemble the Big Bang theory. Change occurs all at once, on a large scale and often in response to crisis. These approaches assume that people need to be jolted out of complacency to embrace new ideas and practices. To make that happen, senior management creates a sense of urgency or takes dramatic action to trigger change. Frequently, the jolt comes from a new CEO eager to put his or her stamp on the organization. Yet we know from a great deal of experience that Big Bang transformation attempts often fail, fostering employee discontent and producing mediocre solutions with little lasting impact.1

But meaningful change need not happen this way. Instead of undertaking a risky, large-scale makeover, organizations can seed transformation by collectively uncovering “everyday disconnects” — the disparities between our expectations about how work is carried out and how it actually is. The discovery of such disconnects encourages people to think about how the work might be done differently. Continuously pursuing these smaller-scale changes — and then weaving them together — offers a practical middle path between large-scale transformation and small-scale pilot projects that run the risk of producing too little too late.

The Leading Question

What increases the odds of successful organizational change?

  • There is a middle path between a risky, large-scale makeover and limited pilot projects.
  • Look for disconnects between how you expect work to be done and how it actually is done.
  • Determine how to turn the inevitable surprises you and your organization discover into opportunities for change.

Researchers tend to overlook this option because few managers have employed it until recently, assuming they needed to take an all (Big Bang) or small (pilot projects sequestered away from the dominant organizational culture) approach to organization change. That may have been more true in the past when organization boundaries were less malleable, communication more difficult and people less mobile. However, today’s complex and connected global environment makes step-by-step transformation by managers inside most organizations a real possibility, if senior leaders recognize and help cultivate their employees’ collective capability to discover everyday disconnects.



1. See, for example, B. Burnes and P. Jackson, “Success and Failure in Organizational Change: An Exploration of the Role of Values,” Journal of Change Management 11, no. 2 (June 2011): 133-162; K. Golden-Biddle and J. Mao, “What Makes an Organizational Change Process Positive?” in “The Oxford Handbook of Positive Organizational Scholarship,” ed. K.S. Cameron and G. Spreitzer (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011); McKinsey & Company, “Creating Organizational Transformations: McKinsey Global Survey Results,” August 2008,; and M. Beer and N. Nohria, eds., “Breaking the Code of Change” (Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press, 2000).

2. R. Lenzner and S.S. Johnson, “Seeing Things as They Really Are,” Forbes, March 10, 1997.

3. C. Bielaszka-DuVernay, “Redesigning Acute Care Processes In Wisconsin,” Health Affairs 30, no. 3 (March 2011): 422-425.

i. See, for example, K. Golden-Biddle and J.E. Dutton, eds., “Using a Positive Lens to Explore Social Change and Organizations: Building a Theoretical and Research Foundation” (New York and Hove, U.K.: Taylor and Francis Group, Routledge, 2012); A. Langley, K. Golden-Biddle, T. Reay, J-L Denis, Y. Hébert, L. Lamothe and J. Gervais, “Identity Struggles in Merging Organizations: Renegotiating the Sameness-Difference Dialectic,” Journal of Applied Behavioral Science 48, no. 2 (June 2012):135-167; J. Howard-Grenville, K. Golden-Biddle, J. Irwin and J. Mao, “Liminality as Cultural Process for Cultural Change,” Organization Science 22, no. 2 (March/April 2011): 522-539; and T. Reay, K. Golden-Biddle and K. Germann, “Legitimizing a New Role: Small Wins and Micro-Processes of Change,” Academy of Management Journal 49, no. 5 (October 2006): 977-998.

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Adjuvi – High Performance Organization » Blog Archive » The Role of the CIO in Digital and Social Business Transformation
[…] hurdles: Not invented here, the innovator’s dilemma, changing a large organization rapidly without “blowing it up”, all while arranging a large-scale enterprise-wide switch in organizational competencies, and so […]
Jayakumar.K.M. Nair
There is a saying that 'if you bite in small portions you can eat even an elephant'.
I have noticed that the blow up happens mainly when the organisation tries to change all of a sudden. The internal customers are not tuned to the change and they are oblivious of the gain they have through the change. Many of them, away from the direct feedline, sees the change as a threat, not as a challenge of growth. If the change is not clearly brewed and if its concoction is not tasty, they will find it sour and hence unacceptable.  the first taste itselves will prompt them to blow up. Hence.................

There is not just this for the CHANGE, but more !
J K M Nair
really enjoyed this article, the "Work Discovery" technique reminded me of the "Undercover Boss" episodes where great things happen and are discovered when CEO's go "undercover" to entry level postions
Glenda Eoyang
Thank you, thank you for this powerful point of view.  As an entrepreneur it confirms my intuitive practice of working from what I've got and where I am to shift toward where I want to be.  As a researcher and instructor it confirms my theoretical grounding in complex adaptive systems, where sustainable change comes in the form of scale-free, self-organized criticality. We don't just focus on disconnects, but we teach Adaptive Action as a simple, iterative engagement with reality of today to build possibility of tomorrow. Thanks for your work and your words.