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Organizational Change is Constant: Here's How to Get Good At It

Jeff Miller

Chief Learning Officer and Vice President of Organizational Effectiveness, Cornerstone OnDemand

This article was originally published under Jeff Miller's column "The Science of Workplace Motivation" on

The pace of change in business today is accelerating—fueled in large part by the disruption that new technologies bring. And research from McKinsey shows that companies are struggling to keep up.

For leaders, that means taking a closer look at the way you manage change from start to finish. Whether the change comes in the form of a new software system, a merger or acquisition, or even just a small shift in process, how can you ensure your approach will lead to business success?

In my experience, the challenge is often that leadership doesn't see the change process all the way through. I've written recently about Ann Salerno's six stages of change, and how effectively leading your team through the first four stages (loss, anger, doubt, discovery) will help everyone become productive again. But stopping there is a mistake.

Stages five and six, "understanding" and "integration," require leadership to reflect on the change process. By spending time to track outcomes and debrief, the entire organization will be better equipped to transition smoothly when change happens again (and again).

Start by Tracking the Impact

At Cornerstone, we recently launched a new worldwide manager training program. Where before the training had been more individualized, this new format emphasized group discussion among new managers. We organized trainees together into online cohorts (kind of like chatrooms), creating communities for them to share insights, ask questions and respond to topics provided by a facilitator.

Once we had successfully implemented the new program, we entered stage five of the change process: understanding. In stage five, you can be pragmatic about change and start to understand its impact. That means gathering as a leadership team to discuss the short term and long term features of the change. For our team, one short term feature was using our product differently. In the long term, we were facilitating cross-cultural discussions around management.

Make sure this discussion about features happens out loud—verbalization allows you to avoid assumptions--as an individual or even by the group as a whole. And use specific terms: "Did this new manager system accomplish our goals?" is too open-ended. Instead, asking, "Did we implement a system that will connect managers across offices?" helped ensure we were all having the same conversation.

Celebrate Your Team

This part is simple: Recognize the individuals involved in the change process for what they accomplished. Change is tough for most people; getting to stage five successfully is a major feat. It doesn't have to be a party, just an acknowledgment that their hard work didn't go unnoticed. It's an easy step that will mean a lot to your employees.

Hold a Thoughtful Debrief

Stage six of the change process is an opportunity to look back and debrief. It's best not to debrief with the entire company because voices will get lost. Instead, identify the people who might represent those voices and invite them to participate. For our debrief meeting, we gathered the team that implemented the cohort system.

From there, review the goals you set at the beginning of the process and ask: Did we get the outcomes we wanted? What can we do better next time? What were the unanticipated outcomes? For example, we hadn't anticipated how quickly managers would make themselves vulnerable in these cohort discussions—and achieve some honest, positive communication as a result.

Finally, encourage people to be introspective, too: What did I learn about myself through this change? What did I learn about others and how they handle change? The person on our team who led this change had never done anything like it before. In the debrief, he talked about how the experience had showed him it's okay to ask for help—and he'd get help if he asked for it. His confidence rose as a result of that debrief process. The next time he faces a change, he might be more open to it.

Psychologists call this resilience: a person's ability to adapt well to difficult events that change their lives. By seeing these final stages of the change process through, you'll start to build resilience not only in individuals, but make it part of your company's DNA—and over time, you'll avoid the paralysis and upheaval change can often bring about in favor of efficiency and productivity.

Photo: Creative Commons

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