Organizing for Constant Change

In today’s dynamic business environment, an organization that cannot constantly change, will not survive. Peter Drucker said, “Organizations must be organized for constant change…[because] today’s certainties are tomorrow’s absurdities.”[1] The problem is, too many organizations are not organized for constant change. Their approach to change leads to frustrated leaders and exhausted, disengaged employees.

The secret to creating an organization that can constantly change is less change, not more. Constant change does not mean bombarding employees with one change initiative after another, or even worse, several changes at the same time. A barrage of change initiatives can reduce an organization’s capacity for change, reinforce the status quo and lead to less real change.

Creating an organization that can constantly adapt and move through change without major disruptions to its operation requires a fundamental shift in the way change is approached. Leaders need to move away from an approach that manages each organizational change as an isolated activity, to one that recognizes every organizational change as part of a series of interrelated transitions.

This shift in focus has two distinct advantages when it comes to organizing for constant change. First, this shift in focus makes it possible to address the often hidden interconnections of an organization, which have a direct impact on the employees’ ability to respond to change. Second, it acknowledges that organizational change is multidimensional.

Change Creates Ripples that Matter

No organizational change, no matter how small, is an isolated event. Every change sends a ripple through the organization. The extent to which any ripple will affect an organization depends on the leaders’ ability to assess, understand and respond. When change is managed as an isolated event a leader is more likely to overlook all but the most immediate ripples, raising the risk that a change in one area will negatively impact change or performance in another area.

Take for example one organization that recently made a series of small departmental changes to reduce inefficiencies. The changes appeared to solve the problem in the intended department, but they created a whole new set of problems for at least one other department. One unexpected problem was the need to create workarounds to accommodate the changes made in the intended department. The new workarounds created inefficiencies, and because they and other additional changes were not anticipated or planned, the negatively affected department had to draw resources from other activities as they scrambled to adjust. This type of change reduces the capacity of the whole organization. And this situation is not unique: I have heard many employees and leaders from different organizations describe similar scenarios.

Preparing the organization for constant change begins with stopping the management of change as a series of isolated events. Every change―regardless of its size―is connected to the organization as a whole. When leaders facilitate change from the perspective of these interconnections, the organization can respond to constant change with fewer change initiatives.

Constant Change Requires Focus on the Whitespace

Every change has two dimensions, the Event and the Whitespace. The Event is the concrete portion of the change. The Whitespace is the gap that each employee must navigate to adopt the new behaviours, activities or processes.

When implementing organizational change, a shift in focus to include the transition helps give employees the time needed to navigate the Whitespace before the next change initiative begins. When change is viewed only as an event, it is easy to overlook the white space of change.

A leader described a reorganization that his company was undertaking, stating he was almost done. He had created the new organizational structure, the new job descriptions were almost ready, and the company had begun hiring for some of the new positions. He was correct; the change event was almost complete. However, the transition was just beginning. If his organization was going to achieve the intended outcome of the change event, time and support would be needed to help his leaders and employees navigate the Whitespace. When the transition dimension of the change was factored into the equation, he estimated he was about 12 to 18 months way from the desired outcome of the change being achieved.

Organizing for constant change requires re-defining when a change is complete. No change should be considered complete until most change recipients have successfully navigated the white space.

Dr. Kilian Gravenhorst[2] described a change innovative organization as one that demonstrates all the conditions for successful change. One key characteristic of the change innovative organization is that employees believe they have enough time to accept a change and move through each phase of the change process.

Constant Change –The New Reality

It used to be that organizations experienced long periods of stability interspersed with short bursts of change. Today it is just the opposite: short bursts of stability interspersed with constant change. It is possible to organize for constant change and create organizations that move through change without causing major distress to employees, change fatigue, and disruptions to the organization. However, doing so requires leaders to re-organize their thinking about the way their organization approaches and manages change.

This article was previously published in the Summer 2012 issue of The Change Leader, a publication of the International Council of Organizational Change, and is reprinted with permission.

[1] Drucker, P. (2004). The Daily Drucker: 366 Days of insight and motivation. New York, Harper Collins

[2] Bennebroek Gravenhorst, K. M., Werkman, R., & Boonstra, J. (2003). The Change Capacity of Organizations: General assessment and five configurations. Journal of Applied Psychology, 52(1), 83-105.