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, www.mckinseyquarterly.com; 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.