Four Key Processes for Developing Advanced Change Capabilities in Agile Organizations

July 2, 2020

Adapting to digitalization and to the COVID-19 pandemic has stoked interest in the design and operation of agile organizations. But what gets lost in the search for the right structure or the best work methods is how agile organizations change. Agile organizations are not just designed differently from traditional organizations; the way they change is different. Research by Dr. Chris Worley, from USC’s Center for Effective Organizations and Pepperdine’s Graziadio School of Business, in partnership with goetzpartners – a German advisory firm – and the NEOMA Business School in France, confirms that agile companies remain better performers compared to their non-agile peers. (A full version of the report can be found here). But the latest findings from the research suggest that a key reason for this advantage is the ability to orchestrate multiple changes.

Based on survey data from a global sample of more than 600 executives in late 2018 and early 2019, he found that an organization’s level of agility was strongly associated to the simultaneous operation of four processes associated with an advanced change capability.


Boost Change Awareness

Agile organizations have amped up and broadened the internal channels of communication regarding change. To orchestrate multiple changes, leaders of different initiatives need to understand what other changes are going on in the organization. This is way beyond awareness of the need for change. It’s about being aware of all the changes taking place in the organization. Just as more testing is needed to know who has the COVID-19 virus and how it is spread so we can re-open the economy, awareness of all the changes going on in the organization is necessary to prevent managers from being overwhelmed by multiple and often conflicting and competing change messages. Leaders are more likely to see the need for coordination and orchestration when they have this awareness.

Dr. Claudy Jules is the director of Google’s organization health and change unit. It serves as a clearinghouse of large-scale change efforts going on. The center of excellence works with business leaders, HR business partners, and others to make sure that different organizational change processes are leveraged in service of both overall Google and local business strategies.


Leverage Design Thinking

The capability to orchestrate multiple changes is emerging as more important than the ability to manage a single change from start to finish. Design thinking is key; people need to see how different changes fit together. Organization changes that are not aligned in service of the organization’s strategy, business model, and operating model are often met with resistance and can be wasteful efforts.

Before she retired from General Mills, Beth Gunderson headed up the enterprise’s organization design function. One of the keys to her success was how she was “joined at the hip” with the head of strategy. Agile organizations – as well as organizations making the transformation to agility – are constantly adjusting their strategies. Knowing how General Mills’ strategy was likely to evolve allowed Beth to think through the required organizational capabilities and create a picture of how the organization should evolve that everyone understood.


Assure Tailored Approach

In today’s diverse world, no single change fits all situations. Change must be tailored to fit both the global strategies and values of the corporation as well as the local situation. Novice change practitioners do not have the breadth of experience to be able to understand how change processes can be adapted and organizations should look to hire or develop these skills.

Helene Milot-Durin is the director of Enedis’ (the French electric utility) Champagne-Ardenne region. Confronted with digitalization, deregulation, and a history of stability, consultants inundated her with potential solutions. But she understood that the region did not have the capabilities to pull off a massive digital transformation. Instead, and based on a careful diagnosis, she designed three highly leveraged changes. Each change was customized to the region’s identity and local conditions; in a short amount of time they produced important adaptations.


Monitor Change Activities

The weakest element among the four change activities is monitoring. The ability to sense quickly whether a change is on track, supported, and aligned means more efficient change processes and quicker course corrections. Digitalization is likely to be an important contributor to the development of this change activity.

Joe Whittinghill, head of corporate learning and development at Microsoft, told us how the organization pulses the workforce every day. With a strong and foundational database to work from, Microsoft can quickly notice when employee climate in the organization changes and why.

These results suggest that the traditional concept of change management may be obsolete. The way organizations create and embrace change needs to evolve and mature in many organizations. Since agility affects the entire firm, individual changes cannot be implemented independently. Rather, the changes that produce and operate an agile organization are operating continuously, efficiently, and sustainably. These changes cut across every aspect of the organization. Managers aiming to become more agile have to think about building more advanced change capabilities.

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