Thursday, February 19, 2015

Change: What Makes it Hard and How We Can Make it Happen

Change can be difficult but it can also be vital to an organizations success. So what are some of the roadblocks that make change difficult in an organizational context, and what strategies can we use to overcome those roadblocks? There are many things we could list, but it might be helpful to consider two groupings: specific factors which may need to be targeted for change to occur, and broader factors that inhibit the process of change.

Two examples of factors that may specifically need to be targeted for change to occur include implicitly held beliefs and their impact on decision making1 and expectation of funders and managing fulfillment of those expectations2. Tregoe uses the term “sacred cows” to describe the implicitly held beliefs individuals in an organization hold which silently guide behavior through dictating what and how things should and should not be done1. Given the unspoken nature of such beliefs they may prevent discussion or realization around how things could be done differently and how change may be necessary. In considering the expectations of funders, nonprofits may be pressured to avoid allocating money to building the infrastructure, internal cash reserves, and staff capacity necessary for change as funders may expect their money to be nearly exclusively dedicated to programming2.

Specific factors such as the two described above may be viewed from a broader framework of why change is difficult to occur. Drawing on Cameron’s model of transformational leadership3 we can see change does not happen or is not sustained for four primary reasons: individuals who influence the organization do not know or believe there is a need for change, they do not know what that change should look like, they experience difficulty committing to change, and they experience difficulty integrating the structures and beliefs necessary for change into the organization.

So how do we tackle these more global roadblocks to change? Well, Cameron developed behavioral guidelines of the transformational leader3 which can give us direction as we seek to make change in our own organizations. Here I will mention the four broad actions she identifies (which parallel the reasons change does not happen) and additional specific actions she notes can promote and/or strengthen the broader action.

The broad actions Cameron discusses taking are: generating a readiness for change, defining a vision that is motivating and energizing, fostering commitment to the vision, and institutionalizing the vision.  In promoting a readiness for change leaders can highlight a variety of standards that are not being met and compare current performance to those standards; they can also identify external threats that call for a need for a different course of action. Once people believe there is a need for change a vision statement can be used to guide what that change is going to look like and the statement itself should emphasize core values, use engaging language that is direct, and exhibit expertise. To help foster commitment to the vision leaders should communicate it often and in multiple ways and should also create opportunities for members of the organization to make public commitments to the vision. Finally, leaders can institutionalize the vision and integrate change into the organization by doing things such as providing trainings that support the vision and modifying reward structures to align with the vision.

There are other more specific ways these roadblocks can be overcome and I encourage you to look at Cameron’s work for some more ideas and for an elaboration on the actions presented3, but this will give you a start in identifying roadblocks to change and determining how to overcome them.

1.    Tregoe, Benjamin B., and Zimmerman, John W. “Top management strategy: What it is and how to make it work.” Simon and Schuster, 1983.
2.    Gowdy, Heather, Hildebrand, Alex, La Piana, David, and Mende Campos, Melissa. “Convergence: How five trends will reshape the social sector.” San Francisco: The James Irvine Foundation, 2009.

3.    Cameron, Kim S. “Transformational Leadership.” Developing Management Skills 2. Eds. David Whetten and Kim Cameron. New York: Harper-Collins, 1991.