Most prescriptions for organizational change have focused on how to launch a single change initiative. This made sense in a stable world in which undertakings were planned and executed gradually and sequentially — like controllers directing airplanes taking off on a single runway, one at a time and well distanced from one another. However, the challenges of coping with dynamic markets, global crises, and advancing technologies are forcing organizations to transform quickly, which can require multiple, simultaneous efforts on several fronts. When time-pressured controllers launch many airplanes in close succession, the risk of collision increases significantly. Yet change managers have a very limited understanding of how such “collisions” happen or how to reduce those risks.
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Failure to manage interrelationships between change initiatives can generate poor overall performance in three ways. First, it can lead to a large number of seemingly discrete initiatives with unclear prioritization and insufficient resources allocated for implementation. Second, it creates misaligned incentives for managers whose concern for their own key performance indicators inhibits cooperation across departmental siloes, when cooperation could better generate the desired benefits. Third, it prevents managers from perceiving connections between their own initiatives and those occurring elsewhere in the organization, creating unexpected conflicts about resource allocation or the timing of implementation. These conflicts undermine each change initiative and decrease overall corporate performance.
Competing Change Initiatives at TechCorp
Launching multiple, simultaneous change initiatives clearly raises the stakes for managers. But with so many moving parts and pieces, where should their primary focus be?
To answer that question, our recent paper in Academy of Management Journal explores the experiences of a leading global technology company we’ll call TechCorp that attempted two large-scale change initiatives in tandem. The first initiative, Foundation, was a strategic project designed to instill a culture of innovation into the hierarchy-heavy organization by inculcating principles such as lean management, listening, and risk-taking. The second, Rebranding, introduced a year later, was intended to comprehensively reposition TechCorp in the marketplace and to be more customer driven, led by a separate team of senior managers along with the marketing department.
During both change initiatives, we conducted 94 interviews with 65 TechCorp staff members, including top managers, middle managers, and front-line employees. We also conducted employee surveys, analyzed corporate documents, and sat in on key meetings and workshops.