6 Steps to Create an Effective Organizational Change Strategy

8 min read

As organizations grow, as disruptive technologies are introduced and as new laws and regulations are passed, it is inevitable that workplace processes, systems and business strategies will need to change and evolve. Organizations that are able to adapt will improve efficiencies and remain competitive, while those that don’t will lag behind or, worst case, be rendered obsolete.

But while change is inevitable, it is often met with internal resistance. From the rank-and-file employees to the board of directors, there will be those stakeholders who are hesitant about organizational change, if not outright against it. So, as an organizational leader, how can you address concerns to bring about change in an effective manner?

Let’s review the key factors related to organizational change and explore communication strategies you can use to reduce friction and resistance and get everybody on board.

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What Is Organizational Change? 

The organizational change process stems from a necessary adaptation to internal needs (such as growth or a decline in sales) or external factors (such as new regulations, new competition or changes in working conditions). In either case, failing to adapt can result in an inability to take advantage of new efficiencies, which means losing out on opportunities or failing to attract new talent. Larger consequences can involve falling behind competitors, losing employees or revenue. 

Examples that require change can include: 

  • A manufacturing company experiences rapid growth and needs to implement additional quality control measures, including expanding its quality control team.
  • Changing workplace expectations inspire a company president to introduce flexible working hours to improve working conditions and attract new talent.
  • A bank president receives an analysis that some of the bank’s loans could experience losses of millions of dollars, and so orders a reorganization of those loans.

All sensible changes, right? Well, all were real-world examples cited over 40 years ago by John P. Kotter and Leonard A. Schlesinger in their review of change management – and all were met with heavy resistance by internal stakeholders, to the point that some of these initiatives had to be abandoned.

Why Is Change Met With Resistance? 

When implementing change within an organization it’s important to anticipate where resistance may come from, in order to get ahead of it.

  • While there will be people who naturally go along with change, recognize that others are later adopters who only gain confidence in a change by seeing how it’s successful. They’ll need to be completely sold on the viability of a change before they buy-in.
  • Change as a disturbance of the status quo could pose a threat to some people’s interests, even if it’s better for the organization as a whole. Some may think they are losing something (even when they really aren’t) and will place self-interest over the good of the organization.
  • Even in the best of circumstances, it can be hard for a change initiative to overcome the inertia of “the way things are.” Existing systems consist of mutually reinforcing components; even if you successfully implement change in one area, pressure from other teams or departments may undermine and eventually revert that change.
  • A lack of proper communication is often at the heart of a failed organizational change process. There may be a misunderstanding of the purpose of the change or a lack of trust in the process (or management). The intended change may seem too challenging and unattainable, seemingly not worth the effort or investment.

In their review of the methods organizations have used to confront and overcome resistance to change, Kotter and Schlesinger identified six different methods for dealing with resistance to change. 

How it works
Education & CommunicationEducation programs that include one-on-one discussions, presentations to groups, or memos and reportsHighly informative, promotes open communicationTime consuming, can be ignored if stakeholders feel they can’t provide feedback
Participation & InvolvementInform and then involve stakeholders in the design and implementation of the changeStakeholders more likely to commit to the change and will offer adviceVery time consuming, can be challenging to organize
Facilitation & SupportProviding training, support services and listening to feedback during the change processHighly effective at addressing all possible forms of resistanceOften the most time consuming and expensive approach
Negotiation & AgreementOffering incentives to accept the change or participate in the processRelatively straightforward and simple way to achieve buy-inCan be expensive if stakeholders all seek to negotiate for added incentives
Manipulation & Co-optationBypassing resistance by either covertly implementing the change or by making stakeholders part of the process but without being open to their feedback or insightsCan be a fast and inexpensive, less likely to encounter initial resistance Can cause future problems if stakeholders feel mislead or manipulated
Explicit & Implicit CoercionForcing stakeholders to accept change via the threat of punitive actionFastest option for forcing changeCan upset stakeholders and damage morale

These are not isolated approaches, as an organization could employ a combination of methods for change. For example, starting by educating and communicating with stakeholders to start the process, employing facilitation and support through the change, and then negotiating with any holdouts who are resisting the change.

At the same time, different situations will call for different tactics. Coercion should be a method of last resort, considering the damage that approach could potentially cause to an organization. However, it may be the only option in cases where the existence of an organization depends on immediate change and total buy-in.  

That being said, if organizations hope to enact effective change there are some recommended steps for reducing the overall amount of resistance and supporting optimal levels of buy-in.  

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Starting the Process of Organizational Change

As a leader whose job is to direct others, it’s important to understand that people don’t actually follow leaders, they follow other followers. Uncharitably, you can think of this as the “herd mentality,” but as a change strategy, this is best exemplified by Derek Sivers’ TED talk on How to Start a Movement

The first follower is what transforms a “lone nut into a leader” and it’s supporting those initial followers that convinces the rest of the group to join in. It’s a fun example, but how might this work in a “real world” organizational change management plan?

Let me share one of my industry experiences. At one of my previous companies we had noticed that many of our salespeople had different sales approaches, each with benefits and drawbacks, which resulted in inconsistency. During the Great Recession we realized we needed to get all of our salespeople on the same process to improve the stability of the company. 

We brought on a consultant to introduce a new process, communicated our reasoning and provided supporting materials. However, most of the salespeople didn’t want to change. They were afraid that if they made a transition to this new process then they wouldn’t be able to make their sales numbers.  

Now, there were a few younger and newer salespeople who weren’t necessarily doing that well, so they felt emboldened to start using the new process. Well, the process worked, and those early adopters experienced great initial success, which was noticed by the established salespeople. As a result, those who were initially reluctant started to incorporate the new process into their existing methods. Eventually, our entire organization had successfully made the full change over to the new process.

The easiest way to convince people to accept change is to show them that it works. Of course, part of the challenge is: How do you mobilize those initial followers and get them to show others the benefits of adoption? 

6 Steps for an Effective Organizational Change Strategy 

In general, if you want to create that initial set of adopters that will help pave the way for the rest of your stakeholders, these are the organizational change strategies you should be aiming for: 

  1. Start by clearly defining the change and how it aligns it with the organization’s objectives and performance goals. Answer the question of what needs to be changed and why it has to be done. The most important step here is to identify the benefits of the change, because you’ll need to continually highlight and reiterate those benefits throughout the process.
  2. The next step should be to determine the impacts of the change and who will be affected. What will be the effects on each unit/team/department and how will it permeate throughout the organization? From there you can determine:
    • Who is the change affecting the most? 
    • Who may resist the change the most? 
    • Whose cooperation is essential for success?

Answering these questions can help identify who your early adopters should be – and how you can explain the benefits to them.

  1. Knowing who you’re targeting allows you to develop a change strategy and subsequent communication plan to determine the most effective means of communication for different groups and individual stakeholders. Questions to ask as you develop your strategy include:
    • What is our communication timeline and available channels? 
    • How will we communicate to the organization? 
    • How will feedback be received and managed? 
    • How will we reiterate the benefits?
  2. Having informed and brought on your initial adopters, now’s the time to provide training to teach the skills and knowledge necessary to manage the change. You’ll have to determine the most effective training delivery methods – workgroups, seminars, online training courses – which could depend on the size of the group and nature of the change. Throughout this process, be sure to reiterate the benefits.
  3. As more of the organization adopts the change, provide ongoing support and ensure that leaders and managers are available to assist employees in navigating the process, answer any questions and overcome obstacles. This is the most reactive phase, as the organization should be open to feedback to identify possible breakpoints, disconnects or errors that are impeding the change process. During these touchpoints, be sure to reiterate the benefits.
  4. At the end of the process, take the time to measure the impact of the changes. Whether you fully succeeded or fell short in some areas, it’s important to determine how effective your change management process was and what lessons can be applied to the future.
    • Was the change successful in meeting the organization’s goals? 
    • What could have been done differently? 

While these are recommended practices for effective change, we have to recognize that not every situation will be ideal. Sometimes there’s no time for lengthy strategizing or no budget for detailed training and so you may have to employ more stick than carrot. However, even in those life or death scenarios where coercion may feel necessary, always try to sell the benefits. 

Dos and Don’ts of the Organizational Change Process 

Every situation is a little different, but there are a few best practices that will help in most scenarios – and some mistakes that you’ll always want to try to avoid.

  • Do continually emphasize the benefits, it’s what your stakeholders will always respond most strongly to.

  • Do start strategizing early, don’t wait for the need to arise and then have to scramble; start putting things into place to handle immediate inevitable change.

  • Do select a strategy that best fits the specific situation based on your available data, required timeframe and expected resistance.

  • Do have visible proponents for the change. For the change to work it needs to be seen in action, and that visibility starts with how management supports early adopters.
  • Don’t neglect to inform people of the change. Lack of communication leads to confusion and mistrust. 

  • Don’t disregard employee objections. Even if a change must go through, sometimes certain approaches or methods aren’t working as intended. Take feedback seriously.

  • Don’t approach organizational change the same way in every situation. The recommended 6 steps will work in most cases, but you need to be adaptable and open to different methods.

  • Don’t rush it. Even in cases that require immediate change, ensure there’s a process that’s being followed.
  • Whenever you can manage it, build a team that’s going to pioneer the change and have the management promote and support it. The rest of the organization will follow.

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    What USD MITE Can Offer Tomorrow’s Changemakers

    We designed the Master of Science in Innovation, Technology and Entrepreneurship program at the University of San Diego with insight and experience from faculty who’ve been on the frontlines of implementing organizational change. 

    Because we’re positioned at the intersection of business and information technology, our program is designed to:

    • Explore why even capable management teams can find it difficult to respond to disruptive innovations in a timely manner.
    • Explain how larger companies strategize to stay ahead of the change curve and mitigate the challenges of product-market fit by acquiring newer startups.
    • Teach students the practices of creating a small change-oriented group through case studies and our capstone project. 

    To learn more about how our innovative, online master’s degree program can help you master the art of effective organizational change, visit our site or contact us directly