Changing Organizational Habits


Frequently, La Piana Consulting has the privilege of supporting our strategic restructuring and strategy development clients through the implementation phase of the engagement.   Reactions of managers, staff, board members, and other internal stakeholders to the inevitable changes that this phase brings range from excitement, anticipation, and a sense of renewal, to fatigue, apprehension, fear, and resistance.  While all of these reactions are within the realm of normal, the challenge is to corral and manage them constructively to maintain forward momentum.

One of the greatest impediments to moving forward after restructuring or adopting a new business strategy is organizational entrenchment in old habits—the source of comfort, familiarity, and certainty that ensures homeostasis and predictability.  We’ve all heard the protestations in defense of “the way we’ve always done it,” and witnessed behavioral resistance to change, whether covert and passive or overt and subversive.  No matter how normal and anticipated, an organization’s penchant for clinging to familiar habits presents the most challenging and critical aspect of the implementation phase.

By definition, restructuring and/or adopting a new strategic direction are systemically disruptive phenomena.  Yet disruption can be positive, and can be channeled in creative and transformative ways in spite of the discomfort, fear and defensiveness that sometimes accompany it.

I belong to a LinkedIn discussion group, Organizational Change Practitioners, that is a continuous source of great insights, wisdom, and shared experience.  As much as I have learned from my colleagues in that group, I am nevertheless struck, and sometimes bemused, by the number of discussions that focus on “making” change happen, whole systems culture change initiatives, and top down change.  With all due respect, I fear that we sometimes miss the trees for the forest.  The process of successfully effecting change in organizations cannot be an edict from on high, nor can it be magically created by external consultants, or willed into being by managers.  It must begin as a small-scale, localized movement that is driven by intrinsically motivated stakeholders.

I recently came across a Harvard Business Review blog that makes the compelling case for a ground-up approach to changing organizational habits. The post, To Change the Culture, Stop Trying to “Change the Culture”, explains that sustained organizational culture change happens as a result of small, incremental, successful, and visible employee-driven improvements which provide the foundation for system-wide replication.

Jeffrey Hiatt, author of the widely acclaimed ADKAR® approach to change management in organizations and founder of Prosci Change Management Learning Center, advances a similar approach.  In his model, the critical factors that change behaviors, and thus habits, in organizations are Awareness of the need for change, Desire to support and participate in the change, Knowledge of how to change, Ability to implement the required skills and behaviors, and Reinforcement to sustain the change.  It is a process of winning hearts and minds, one employee at a time.

Finally, and most importantly, trust and respect are necessary antecedents to shifting behavior and loosening the hold of old organizational habits.  By honoring traditions and organizational artifacts while making the case for change, and by attending to the ADKAR principles, shift happens.  It is an incremental process of planting seeds of change, gaining traction through ownership, building momentum through small wins, and reinforcing change through rewards and incentives.

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