Managing Change From the Inside Out

Every edifice which desires to exist past its initial purpose must change. With buildings, rooms can be redesigned or restructured, sections can be added or removed, facades can be replaced. Many such alterations require concomitant changes to the infrastructure of the building; internal systems such as plumbing, foundation, physical supports, or communications must all be evaluated for continued service and efficiency. Modifications such as these often support new or changed purposes for the existing building.

The same principles apply to organizations, which change their purposes much more frequently than most buildings. Depending on the market and product or service offered, strategies can change annually (or more often), structures and processes can be optimized for efficiency, and infrastructure can be modified to support the new purposes. But unlike buildings, organizations are made of thinking, feeling people, not dumb material. This fact requires that organizational change, to be most effective, must be approached in a fundamentaly different way.

Our human history is filled with examples of organizational change. There are two main approaches which stand out across the centuries. Mandated change from without, and inspired change from within. Mandated change can be met with two responses: Submissive acceptance, or rejection and resistance. In some cultures, submissive acceptance is part of the prevalent worldview and psychology. In those where it is not, mandated change can quickly morph into force, and things can get ugly for all involved.

At least for the majority of Western culture, inspired change is almost always the more effective approach. Indeed, the entire motivational industry of books, movies, and various programs is based on the premise that people will more readily change their behavior when they actually want to change. So how do you inspire your organization to change itself from within?

Earlier this summer, I was exposed to the work of James Sartain, one man who seems to have a decent handle on how to go about inspiring change in organizations. Mr. Sartain’s background is in software and software quality. After spending some time at HP, he has led software quality improvement initiatives at Intuit, Adobe, and currently at McAfee.

I don’t know Mr. Sartain personally, but I have read his online publications during this career journey. His role is one which reports to the senior leadership, and his goal is to improve software quality across the corporation’s software products. Through his publications, you can see how his approach has matured over the years, and you can see which aspects of his approach seem to be effective by the fact that he has maintained them through experiences at four companies.

This is my summary of Mr. Sartain’s approach to change management:

1. Senior Leadership Support and Commitment.  While change cannot be effectively mandated from the top down, it can be easily prevented in that way. There is a huge amount of inertia to overcome in effecting behavioral change across an organization, and the density of senior management’s influence is often greater than the rest of the organization put together. Senior leadership must be supportive of the initiative for there to be any hope of success. Mr. Sartain also emphasizes that large-scale organizational change is not a short-term effort. Organizational change takes time, and that must be acknowledged and accepted up front.

2. A Compelling Vision of the Future.  In each of his new roles, Mr. Sartain has painted a picture of what life would be like if the quality improvement initiative was already done. He reinforces the commitment part of step 1 by dating this picture two to three years in the future. From the viewpoints of the customers, the shareholders, and the employees, his vision explains the benefits accrued by each group as a direct result of the change.

3. Viral Adoption of Best Practices.  Far from reinventing the wheel, Mr. Sartain is an avid supporter of industry best practices. But what stood out to me in this area is how he proposes to roll out the best practices. He advocates identifying one or two teams who know they need to change what they are doing, and who are ready and willing to try something new. Once these teams have success implementing the change initiative, their excitement will naturally overflow to others around them. Mr. Sartain creatively applies the principles from Geoffrey Moore’s Crossing the Chasm, viewing the change initiative as the product to be adopted and the internal organization as the market. These initial teams are the early adopters whose word-of-mouth promotion is crucial to taking the change initiative to scale.

4. Evidence via Metrics.  From his software quality background, Mr. Sartain knows that metrics are critical to ascertaining the progress and effectiveness of any type of change. Key metrics should be indentified, agreed upon, and sedulously tracked and reported from the beginning. Without rigorous metrics, success or failure easily becomes a political story with partisan advocates on both sides.

5. Review, Reorganize, and Reward Progress.  Going back to my first statements, everything must change over time, even change initiatives. The process must include steps to evaluate progress and customize the initiative for the environment without prematurely jettisonning the commitment. Progress where evident should be publicly rewarded to help sustain the momentum and show the support of the senior leadership.

While these five steps work together as a complete body, in my opinion, the heart of success is in steps 2 and 3. The power of a compelling vision cannot be underestimated. It is in our nature to aspire to greater things and brighter futures. When you can paint that picture as the context for change, you tap into an enormous potential for focused activity. Likewise, success is infectious. When one team succeeds, and can passionately communicate why they succeeded, it inspires emulation in those around them. Igniting these two internal sparks are crucial for creating change from the inside out.

The next time you know you need to change your strategy, or have the need to revamp a system’s architecture, consider how to manage that change from the inside out. Can you create a vision of the future that energizes your organization around your new strategy? Can you prove the validity of your new architecture in some smaller way that creates viral excitement around a larger roll-out? How can you tap the power of vision and the infectious nature of success to create effective change in your organization?

Do you have other positive experiences with rolling out change? Add your thoughts below!


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