Improve your organizational-change initiatives by co-creating them
The flurry of changes that organizations have enacted since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic was often made by a small number of individuals who had decision rights, and expressed as directives: “Effective immediately, we are canceling all travel to visit clients or meet with colleagues, and instead we will transact meetings virtually.” These changes were necessary to ensure safety; generally, those affected accepted the logic of the decision and complied readily.
Along the continuum of potential reactions to a planned change within the workplace, compliance is the most basic expectation that change agents can hope for. In an emergency, compliance is sufficient for change to happen.
However, few changes in organizations are that black and white, and the path to change success is more complex. Yes, during the pandemic, we may see more changes-as-mandates, but they should be the exception for a simple reason: Mandates that lead only to compliance rarely motivate people to change for the long term.
A continuum for determining change success
When you design a change initiative, consider the degree of stakeholder engagement required for success. Here are three options:
- Compliance: Your stakeholders will do what you ask of them, with perhaps minimum enthusiasm, but at least you can count on their adherence. This may be a tolerable outcome in certain circumstances, such as stakeholders’ obedience in following a legal or human resources change directive, or in conforming to other mandatory procedures.
- Adoption: Your stakeholders change their behavior, actions, and/or thoughts to a degree that suggests deeper choice than mere compliance. This level of commitment signals that stakeholders will stick with the change even when times get tough.
- Embrace: Your stakeholders grasp the change with enthusiasm and vigor; they will lend their active energy to its success; the most ardent will evangelize the change to others.
In general, compliance yields the least engagement, but also takes less time and work; embrace is hardest to achieve, but is worth it for changes that are important to the long-term success of the organization.
How do you achieve higher levels of change success? One powerful way is to invite stakeholders to co-create the change.
The power of co-creation in advancing successful change
Co-creation means: Invite people who will be affected by the change to define, design, pilot, implement, and promote it with you. It takes more work, but co-creation answers the fundamental human need that emerges from self-determination theory: When people can act with volition, they’re more likely to be motivated and engaged. That’s true of all things in the workplace, but especially true of change—people will get on board with change if they choose it, and they will more likely choose change if they have a role in shaping it. To quote Harvard Business School’s Rosabeth Moss Kanter: “Change is disturbing when done to us, exhilarating when done by us.”1
How to structure co-creation of a change initiative? As a practical matter, it may be useful to imagine concentric rings, with each ring populated by different stakeholders:
Ring 1: In the innermost ring, add a core team of individuals who will organize the change project and see it through from beginning to end. This group will serve as both a brain trust and an implementation team. Populate the inner ring with people who (1) have the different talents you need to get the job done, (2) have different perspectives about the change to ensure healthy discussions, and (3) have access to different stakeholder types in the next two rings. Keep this group to between 4 and 8 people.
Ring 2: Populate the next ring with individuals who will do special jobs to advance the change, and who can serve as change ambassadors to reach different audiences at key stages. Here are two examples: (1) Early on, you may want to understand the current state to determine exactly what the change needs to be—”What are we doing now, and what results are we achieving?” Dispatch people in ring 2 to different parts of the organization to find out, taking advantage of their access and relationships. (2) Later, when you have determined what the change will be, ask your ring 2 ambassadors to promote the change with the colleagues who already trust them.
Ring 3: In the outermost ring, engage stakeholders you call on from time to time, to provide input, information, and opinions throughout the change process. Include likely fans of your change, as well as contrarians whose viewpoints may be vital to understanding where the change may stumble, or where you may need to do further work.
Across every ring, you are engaging stakeholders—involving them in the change, listening to them, learning from them, and even distributing ownership of the change among them. When it comes time to enact the change, stakeholders will be primed to adopt, and even embrace, it.
Of course, co-creation is not a panacea. It takes more time and effort to co-create a change than it does to mandate one unilaterally, and co-creation is not an appropriate option in an emergency. But when the change initiative is intricate and important to your organization’s future, and when you want maximum support for your new direction, the investment you make in co-creation will pay dividends many times over.
1 Rosabeth Moss Kanter, The Change Masters: Innovation and Entrepreneurship in the American Corporation.
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