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‘Create a cascade of change’: How to break through stubborn company infrastructure and get things done

Expert on change at University of Waterloo, Frances Westley, discusses leadership strategies to build enduring yet innovative companies.

‘Create a cascade of change’: How to break through stubborn company infrastructure and get things done

Wherever one looks, one sees organizations—from universities, health care providers, and large- to medium-size companies—who are struggling to adapt to an ever-accelerating pace of change.  In their quest to stay relevant, most organizations are hobbled by bureaucratic management systems—with too many layers and too may rules— that frustrate game-changing innovation and proactive renewal.

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As any CEO will tell you, changing an organization, particularly a large one, is an immensely complex undertaking. Research by Bain & Company suggests that only 12% of transformation programs meet or exceed their objectives—and most of these programs are incremental, not ground-breaking.

So, what hope do we have for changing our organizations at their core—for flattening bloated hierarchies, rolling back the tide of petty rules, and infusing the entire organization with the spirit of entrepreneurship? If the challenge of creating a resilient, self-renewing organization is daunting from the perspective of the CEO, consider the challenge for a frustrated employee, hog-tied by bureaucracy, three or four levels down. What can she do to untangle and simplify the giant mesh of convoluted and interconnected and processes that dictate how you hire a team member, submit a budget request, change a salary, purchase a piece of equipment, adjust a product spec, handle a customer complaint, onboard a new vendor, or do just about anything else?

That’s the question we put to Frances Westley, the J.W. McConnell chair of social innovation at Canada’s University of Waterloo, and an expert in systemic change. Frances has taught hundreds of activists how to tackle big, gnarly problems, and her 2007 book, Getting to Maybe, is an immensely practical manual for individuals who are eager to make system-level change.

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The first step is to give up on the idea that you can script the change process from beginning to end (a conceit of many CEOs). Says Frances, “If you think, ‘I’m going to plan all my steps out and just drive ahead,’ you’ll run into a wall. Instead, you have to find leverage points throughout the system and exercise pressure, and then you’re more likely to produce a cascade of change.”

Frances knows what it takes to be a successful system-level activist. Some of her most important tips:

  • Find allies who understand the system better than you do, and are connected to senior leaders or policy-makers. They are force multipliers.
  • Look for parts of the system that are under pressure, or under-performing, because the appetite for change may be higher there
  • Be positive. There’s little profit in styling yourself as a subversive—that’s scary to most people. Instead, try to understand the fears and concerns of those you’re trying to influence—find areas where you can work with the grain of their self-interest.
  • Sow a lot of seeds. If you share lots of specific proposals with key decision-makers, you raise the odds that one one of your ideas will sprout when changing circumstances create an appetite for new approaches.
  • Be flexible and relentless. Says Frances, “If you run into a wall, just move somewhere else. You need to be like water running around a stone.”

As we conclude our conversation with Frances, we’re left wondering, what would happen if every company trained its employees to think like social innovators? How much progress could we make if everyone at work was equipped to play a proactive role in retooling the sclerotic, highly politicized and stultifying systems that make our organizations less daring, adaptable and humane than they could be, and need to be?

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Maybe instead of launching one more “transformation program,” the average company should commit itself to building an army of smart, gung-ho, change catalysts.

Editor’s note: This article is part of the video and editorial series The New Human Movement, which aims to highlight bold thinkers and doers who are reimagining work and leadership.


Gary Hamel is a business thinker, author, and educator. He is on the faculty of the London Business School and the Harvard Business Review Press best-selling book, Humanocracy: Creating Organizations as Amazing as the People Inside Them.

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Michele Zanini is the co-founder of the Management Lab (MLab), where he helps organizations become more adaptable, innovative, and engaging places to work. He is the coauthor of Humanocracy: Creating Organizations as Amazing as the People Inside Them.

 

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