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What have I learnt about change management?

I've been spring-cleaning my computer files - it's been quite cathartic. The process has made me realize how much work I've done since last year - the start of transitioning my working identity - on organizational development and business transformation. It has been really exciting working with companies, charities, a football group, and the public sector to generate organizational change. I've been involved in major restructuring work, assisting a small charity with a merger.

Looking back over my work, I'm struck by how little of it is about structure. In fact, this change away from the structure is the most significant evolution in my thinking about business transformation. The most interesting and valuable questions were about how individuals collaborate. That's not to suggest that structures and the organizational connections between people aren't vital, but they are secondary and are frequently the least significant component of building an efficient organization.

Where do you start thinking about organizational change if not with structure?

Looking at my work from the last year, the conversations often start with a question about structure. Still, when you ask questions that lift the lid, it's about the behaviours that enable individuals to work together. Of which structure is only one of the key enablers. For example, working with a large, growing multi-national football group with clubs and academies across Africa, Europe, and the United States, the first question was about structure. The second question was how they could collaborate more - a behaviour.

Even though the group structure was the initial query, it was evident from our initial discussions that they wanted to identify new ways of cooperating and integrating. I advised bringing in the leadership team outside the executive team to determine what kept them from collaborating rather than simply proposing a new structural approach. The interviews I conducted yielded a wealth of intriguing feedback on methods of working, communicating, and sharing resources that a structural adjustment alone could not resolve.

We went through a change process with the group that was ostensibly about how the structure appeared and functioned but was really about how various people communicated and worked together. The process covered everything from roles and responsibilities to meeting cadence and communication methods. Aside from that, the larger leadership group suggested structural changes to make reporting lines clearer and easier to manage and simplify how resources were shared - not quite the helix organization, but also not quite a matrix.

Separately, I've been working with a small business to develop its culture and identity through individual and team coaching. The structure is not part of the discussion, but role clarity and how communication functions to build the business are. I like this engagement because our main goal is to find a means to develop the organization's culture by using culture discussions to identify and define how people will work together - use Slack, divide up work, and so on.

What has struck me as I've worked through these different engagements is how connected structure, culture and the ways people interact are. How we think about behaviours plays out in the physical and virtual spaces we create. According to Edgar Shein, cultural objects are firmly associated with the underlying culture rather than the professed culture. It's been fascinating to see it play out so obviously.

What have I discovered about creating organizational change?

Begin with understanding the reasons for the change. Is it to grow an organization, improve productivity, or something else? It's tempting to believe that the structure is the issue because it's often the most visible reflection of how an organization works, yet it rarely dictates how it works. Establish a clear outcome and debate your choices for achieving your goal.

It is preferable to focus on something other than structure and instead develop an understanding of the culture and modes of operation. Consider how you want to collaborate and the culture that entails. What is preventing that from happening? What aspects of the workplace environment have emerged, that may be unfavourable or harmful to your future success? Which elements are critical and should be incorporated?

The process itself is more important than the result. It's exciting to think that an innovative structure will significantly alter how everyone collaborates. Unfortunately, in both examples, it is the evolutionary nature of the transformation process has stood out. When everything changes, there is no such thing as a go-live point; it takes time and ongoing interaction. This is frequently best supported from the outside - by someone willing to question and reflect on what they see.

Creating change is hard, and we know that. In the past twelve months, I've found that we make much more progress when we focus on the future and how we want to work together than on how people show up in an organizational chart. It's a lesson I wish I'd learnt five years ago - and I hope it helps you.


Let’s connect. If you found this blog interesting, have questions about ordinary leadership or want to chat about leadership in general, it would be great to connect. I set aside two hours every week to make new connections and renew old ones. We have half an hour to talk about whatever you want - how we could work together, your projects and ideas, or something else. It's space for connection. You can book a slot here, and there is more background here.

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