For many years, organization development (OD) interventions focused mainly on incremental, localized adjustments, tweaks to the functioning of the organization. Team-building with a new leadership group, redesign of a performance appraisal system, or reorganization of a department, were typical “small scale” interventions, aimed at fine-tuning parts of an organizational system. Wholesale, fundamental transformation of organizations was rare.

A new world

Welcome to the new world. Due in part to the rapidly shifting landscape of business, the popularization of the concept of “transformational leadership” in the pop-management literature, and an explosion of research into the do’s and don’ts of successful transformations, more and more organizations are undertaking fundamental, strategic, system-wide transformation, in an effort to stay aligned with their markets in these turbulent times. 

As I reflect on my own OD consulting work over the past several years, I observe that I have been engaged in just such large-scale culture-shift work with my clients, much more than ever before.

Reality time

A few reality checks about “real transformation.”

Top down: First, it has to be driven from the top of the organization. That doesn’t mean it must be dictated, without any input from or other consideration of those out there in the organization. It also doesn’t mean that the folks working down in the hierarchy don’t see the need for fundamental change. It only means that top leadership commitment, tangible support, courage, patience, perseverance… are critical, non-negotiable, essential foundation pieces for large-scale organization change.

Top leaders, who control resources to make such change, have to make the case, over-communicate the message, and behave consistent with it (i.e., walk the talk). And note, it cannot be just one top leader who has the fire in the belly; it has to be a leadership team commitment.

Data-driven: Second, it must be evidence-based if it is to be successful. The change can’t be according to some current fad, or someone’s hopeful best guess about “what we probably should be doing.” A critical advantage of a behavioral science focus is that it positions one to look first and foremost to the data, regardless of how we might like things to be. What are our customers actually saying about us? What is the “voice of the employee”? What does the research show about what makes reward systems effective? On what real evidence will we base our actions? Always, always look to the data.

Patience: Third, significant transformation will take time. In most organizations, employees with any tenure with the company have “seen and heard it all before.” They are used to flavor-of-the-month programs that come… and go.

It is not surprising that any change effort, much less a system-wide transformation effort would be met with a measure of caution and skepticism. A “wait and see” attitude has been cultivated in many, probably most, organizations.

I have seen exceptions to this principle. In some rare cases the transformation plan suddenly releases employees’ pent-up desire for excellence, more than starting a new growth process. But in the vast majority of cases, even in these uncertain times, real transformation is a planned developmental process that just takes the time that it takes.

Perseverance: Fourth, the transformation plan must be the filter for all relevant decisions. Unanticipated business conditions must not cause leaders to “set aside” the transformation strategy, and revert to old ways of doing business. There will be challenges to the plan somewhere along the way. Sales are not what we expected... new competition has come into our market... there is pressure to cut back on the promised training….

During those “moment of truth” situations, employees will be watching very closely. In my experience, if the strategy is right, it can and must be followed, even to get through short-term challenges. Failure to do so supports the skeptical view that “they didn’t really mean it,” and sets the whole effort back, or even undercuts it altogether.

Remember the lynchpin: While driven from the top and enacted at the bottom, they absolutely must engage middle managers as active and visible champions of the change. I have suggested in a number of the columns in this series that first-line supervisors (and the level or two above them) are critical lynchpins in the organization.

For the folks who report to them, they are the company. About half the questions in the popular Gallup Employee Engagement survey touch more or less directly on the relationship with the supervisor. Research going back several decades found that first-line supervisors had the most impact on the effectiveness of employee involvement programs, and (paradoxically) were most likely to be left out of the planning and implementation of such programs.

The short and direct message is, involve middle managers to the max. Inform them, put them at the head of the parade, celebrate the exemplars among them.

In the current turbulent environment of business, smart organizations are rethinking even their most fundamental strategies. In 2012, everything is on the table.