Strategy & Leadership

Avoid the pitfall of change without a goal

April 25, 2016

Don't start blindly with an organizational change, but first define a clear goal, advises Prof. Dr. Jan de Vuijst, professor in the Masterclass Leadership at TIAS. He mentions six possible goals that should offer ample food for thought in many an evaluation of organizational change.

Every line manager is occupied with change. Managing change would seem to be a leader's core activity - entire libraries have been written about it and the ideal change model has already been invented countless times. Good to Great? Kotter's steps? The good old balanced scoreboard after all? Maybe a more human-focused approach such as Spiral Dynamics or Theory U?        

Undoubtedly the equifinality concept applies here: each of the methods is good and will do its work. One method demands a little more of people, the other a little more from the process descriptions, a third a little more from the leader – but in practice all methods have demonstrated that they can be used for managing a change. So there really are differences, but each method has its own specific advantages and disadvantages and has been tested within organizations.

Detachment from methods

"Equifinality" means - to formulate it simplistically - it all boils down to the same thing. Or in other words: any method can be used to effect change. The pitfall is that some people really start to believe in one particular method, sometimes with a virtually religious dedication. If one retains a measure of relativistic detachment, then one can work with all methods. Then one will also be able to introduce variations with interventions from other methods than the prevailing one, develop one's own method and so make a success of the change.

Once, an experienced advisor had to account for the method he had used in supervising a major change. He saved himself by stating: "sir, I am an eclectic". His listeners nodded thoughtfully and felt reassured: apparently he followed a method.

Consideration for the method

The consideration given to a method and its consistent use is sometimes at the expense of consideration for other matters that really deserve more attention from the leader. Paradoxically enough, a significant omission is often a clear goal for the change. Where is the change going, what is the intention? Exactly? Sometimes more attention is paid to the consistent application of a method after a change period, than to the achieved result.

Why that is the case, is interesting in itself (it could be a form of social defense: the less attention I pay to the results, the less I can be held to account for the disappointment in them), but the core issue is still that many changes are not directed at a clear goal. And if you ask the person behind the change what it should have delivered, the answer is a little vague.

Incidentally, maybe the change served a less apparent goal: the boss could demonstrate that he is a big guy, the department is finally rid of certain employees, we can show another company department that we are behaving in a modern fashion, and such like. But the goal of the change? Exactly? And how much may it cost, in time and money? 

Making a difference at the start

A leader can make a real difference at the start of the process: what is the goal of the change? A helpful summary of relevant goals is that of Kubr (2002), Management Consulting. A list of six goals that should offer ample food for thought in many an evaluation of organizational change. Just evaluate a recent random change in the organization:

  1. New capabilities. The organization is now able to do something that was formerly not possible or available. For instance in the technical field, or in the field of organizing funds, translating ideas into activities, and so on.
  2. New systems. The organization has new systems in house, or is able to build them. That can be technical systems, but also methods of recording assessments, organizing preventive maintenance, preselection arrangements, etcetera.
  3. New relationships. The organization has new partners, other relationships or other qualities belonging to existing relationships, that are essential for the future of the organization. Other contracts or agreements on benchmarking (comparison with equivalent parties) can be the result.
  4. New opportunities. The organization can now enter another market, make purchases differently or present itself differently in existing markets.
  5. New behavior. People in the organization may now be more results-oriented or the mutual relationships between a particular management team and the board of management may have been cleared up; maybe departments, groups, teams or colleagues cooperate with each other in a different manner. This can vary from another way of dealing with international customers to washing the hands after every patient contact.
  6. New performance. This is the overriding goal of the change. The organization performs differently (in competences, relationships, grasping opportunities, behavior) and that is a good start for the evaluation: what difference is there in the organization's performance, after this assignment? If the organization has made progress in one of the above fields, but this has made no difference in the performance of the organization as a whole, then it is questionable whether the leader has delivered a good job.

Customer experience as the point of departure

In practice, this conclusion is not only dealt with at the end when evaluating the change, but it is established by the leader from the start. The wise leader will take customer influence or experience as the point of departure here. It is the first step in the intent for change, independent of whatever change method is used. No clear goal yet? Be the wise leader and don't start blindly with change - however high the pressure may be from others who think that it is time for you to "do something".

In a generic approach to change, the GROW concept, the G stands for "Goal", the purpose of the change. That comes first, only then comes Reality (what is it now really like?), and only then the Options to bridge the difference between the goal and reality, and eventually the decision about the change itself. And who knows – about the method that the leader wishes to follow herein. Applying the GROW concept to changes has been worked out in De Vuijst (2015, 2nd edition), 'Professioneel adviseren' (Professional counseling).

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