Secrets of Organizational Change


The Importance of Leadership & Communication in Implementing Organisational Change
"Organisational change" requires a considerably different approach to the implementation of "operational change" within a stable organisation.

Whereas operational change can often be implemented with little initial impact on jobs or levels of responsibility, changes to organisational structure quite naturally tend to have an immediate effect on the people within the organisation.

Organisational change that directly affects people’s employment, roles, responsibilities and career paths requires clarity of purpose, direction and lots of really good communication.

Embarking on any significant program of organisational change may also require external support to provide skills, experience, techniques and tool-kits to ensure effective delivery. But success is ultimately dependent on sponsorship, leadership and decisiveness from within, and effective communication throughout.

Purpose and Scope
Successful change management starts with a clear purpose, set of defined goals and scope at the very beginning of a program of change. Understanding and communicating the rationale for change must be high on executive management agendas to ensure that the organisation is purposeful in its approach from day one. Certainty of the requirement at the top of the organisation is a pre-requisite for making it work at every level. Executive origination or adoption is essential not only to ensure strong on-going sponsorship but also to launch the program with the clarity and conviction that will overcome initial obstacles that will surely arise. Whatever the structure of the team at the top (executive board, individual director or owner) the answer to the question "why are we doing this?" has to be clear and beyond any doubt.

With the answer to the "why?" question an integral part of business strategy and direction, developing the scope, or "how?", may take a little longer but must always directly address that answer. In this way, the course of action to be undertaken has to have the same commitment from the top as the rationale for action. The message must be clear; "this is what we shall achieve and this is how we plan to achieve it".

It is worth pausing for a moment to consider the alternative to this level of commitment. Does a message like "this is our current thinking as to what we may possibly be looking towards and we’re hoping to find that we may be able to do it somehow" sound like a good starting point for a program that could directly impact people and may actually cost people their jobs? However big the potential impact of change will be on employees and managers, it is most likely that initial clarity, positivity and commitment from the top will set the tone for the whole program. An uncertain, half-hearted, weak start from senior management will generally translate into a negative approach throughout the organisation. This will manifest itself as everything from determined resistance to "I’ll believe it when I see it" indifference that will reduce cooperation and slow down progress.

Establishing Direction
Strong leadership establishes and maintains direction throughout a program of change. Unfortunately, many organisations appear to think that "good leadership" is in some way different from "strong leadership". There may be a tendency to think that "inclusiveness" is the key to good leadership and then to apply a concept of such inclusion that substitutes discussion and seeking consensus for decisiveness, thought leadership and determination.

Good, strong leadership in reality is usually just what it says, leading thought and decision making with determination and resolve. "Collaboration" is very important in terms of helping to gain buy in and support for a change program, and involving as many people as possible in the process can have significant benefits in helping to ensure that the change has the greatest chance of long term, sustainable success in practice. "Getting out there" into the business and engaging with people will be a huge contributor to the success of any change program. However, collaboration should not become the excuse for indecisiveness, weakness and delay. To be clear, you will never be able to persuade everyone up front that a proposed change is the right course of action. That does not mean to say that you should not try to bring as many people along from the start but if you look for 100% agreement, especially from across management, then you will definitely be disappointed. Once a decision to move has been made then of course you should continue to work to persuade the naysayers, but if you try to gets everyone’s "sign off" before making the firm decision to commit then you are unlikely to ever move beyond simply talking. Action requires decisiveness and actually doing something.

As the program of change then moves further into the detail of its scope and content, it is possible and right to consider the degree of flexibility that may exist between the initial concept and what may be achievable or desirable in practice. Flexibility and collaboration at this point is not a weakness as long as the question "what must be included and what may be changed?" is adequately addressed. What are the non-negotiable features and what may be negotiable? This enables the strong message of "this is what we shall achieve and this is how we plan to achieve it" to be applied with the inclusion of input from all levels, where flexibility may be advantageous, whilst maintaining the most important features intact and the clarity of purpose unchanged.

So, for example, if the critical requirement is for change within a given period, a timeline within that period is a "non-negotiable". As such, it is a subject for action throughout the program from design to implementation but not a subject for discussion or debate. If, however, there are some alternatives as to the order in which to implement change within that timeline, those alternatives may be considered as "negotiable" and input may be welcomed without diluting the strength of purpose.

If the three most important features of property value are "Location, Location, Location", those that determine the success of any change program are sometimes referred to as "Communication, Communication & Communication". We have seen this put on many a slide supporting a change program within an organisation. But without understanding what this really means in practice this is really just a valueless catchphrase. Many organisations will agree that communication is one of the most important factors for success, but have little idea of what constitutes effective communication. Others will fear that information may breed resistance or breech their obligations under various areas of employment legislation. Whilst this latter concern has to be effectively managed it is generally better to be accused of communicating too much than too little (with the obvious proviso that the information that is communicated is factually correct). Communication also takes courage as you open yourself up to being attacked or criticized, but without it any change is highly likely to be unsuccessful.

Real change will also mean that there will be those who will vehemently oppose the change. While everyone should be able to voice their concerns, one of the main reasons for damaging failure is where hard line opposition is not exposed and dealt with adequately. This also takes courage and conviction but will ensure that the change program, which is of course being conducted for the good of the organisation and all its employees, will not be undermined by a negative minority. This negative minority are often trying to "protect" themselves from something they perceive as personally negative. We are not talking here about "healthy sceptics" who are genuinely concerned but are prepared to be persuaded, but instead those who never intend to support the change right from the start.

Communication relies on the absolute clarity and decisiveness of the program’s key sponsors and management. Communication should also be carried out in a clear and confident fashion, and not, for example, just because it’s the first Tuesday morning of the calendar month and my "expert" consultant tells me that every Tuesday I need to hold an "all hands" meeting. Where information is provided and subsequently changed or contradicted it is easy to create an atmosphere of mistrust. To build the trust that is needed to work effectively with all stakeholders (including those who may ultimately lose their jobs) information needs to be accurate and readily provided, and any absence of information needs to be reasonably explained. The best way to communicate is to be as honest about the information you don’t know as you are about that which you do know. Ex-US Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld’s famous "known knowns" speech makes a pretty good basis for breaking down the need for communication into three areas. "There are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don’t know we don’t know".

  • When something is known without doubt, decided and not subject to future change it should be communicated decisively and appropriately at the first opportunity.
  • When something that could be reasonably expected to be communicated is not yet known but is being worked on, awaiting a decision or is reliant on a future event (which may relate to legislation preventing its disclosure at present) the known status of that information should be provided. The key to providing such status communication is always to be able to fulfil expectations of further updates. For example, if something awaits a decision that cannot be made before a future planned meeting it is better to communicate that the issue cannot be decided before that date and may be decided later, than to state that it will be decided on that date.
  • In every program there are issues that cannot be anticipated at the start that may become important to stakeholders over time. These "unknown unknowns" should be included in communications though, from the very beginning – communicating the recognition that there are likely to be such items and that they will become part of the status of information that is provided when they are identified and become "known unknowns", followed by detail of how they are addressed as they become so (as "known knowns").

Following the above principles, there is nothing much to prevent quite open communication to all stakeholders throughout a program. The quality of the communication then becomes the key factor for success.

Does the organisation have an effective existing or previously deployed mechanism or mechanisms for communicating change with internal stakeholders? Many, particularly larger, organisations need to be keeping all employees informed on a vast array of things that are happening on a day-to-day basis. In such circumstances there may be newsletters, "town hall" meetings, regular departmental briefings, executive chaired conference/video calls, etc., already in place and able to accommodate much of the additional communications required for a new program. However, occasional memos pinned to a notice board and similar sources of information do not alone provide sufficiently effective media for communicating any significant program of change. The absence of an effective communications structure and content is probably the biggest cause of issues, delay and potentially failure of many change programs. Employees and stakeholders who are both informed and satisfied with the level of information (even when the content may impact their future with the company) are far more cooperative and active in supporting programs of change than those who lack information or feel that they are not being adequately informed. So, communication must be good and, critically, be seen to be good.

Fear of negative reaction to communication may also indicate an absence of adequate communications infrastructure. It is understandable that some managers will be concerned as they anticipate issues from employees who may be negatively impacted by the change program. However, most people would probably prefer to know what is happening around them rather than know something is happening but not know what. Any activity that is not well communicated will see the information void filled with rumour and conjecture. It is often surprising how helpful and cooperative employees can be, even when their jobs are at risk, if they are included in the sharing of information as soon as it is able to be shared. Further, even if an employee may ultimately be negatively impacted there may well be positives that everyone can benefit from, such as helping to implement the change, learn new skills, being part of helping others, making oneself more marketable to new potential employers, etc. Conversely, under-informed employees will usually feel that they are not being treated with the respect and consideration that they deserve and will react accordingly.

Similarly, there is often a fear of contravening employment legislation that, in most countries, stipulates a timetabled process for communicating job losses or significant change of employment to affected individual employees and/or their collective representatives (unions, workers councils, etc.). It is essential to adequately consult with experts (internal or external) in the territories where change will take place and to make sure legislative requirements are adhered to. However, it should be remembered that the relevant legislation has almost always been formed with the intention of making sure that employees are fairly treated through adequate and timely access to information and have the opportunity to influence decision making where appropriate. Employment legislation also usually has the goal of ensuring equitable outcomes in relation to maintaining the benefits of past employment or compensation for loss of that employment should employment termination be part of the program. Again, it is better to be guilty of communicating too much, too soon rather than too little, too late.

In summary, a successful program of organisational change needs:

  • Strong, decisive Leadership
  • Unwavering sponsorship
  • Clear, understandable rationale for the change
  • Firm direction
  • Defined scope
  • Thorough assessment of all stakeholders/employee groups impacted by the change
  • Assessment of level of information and engagement each stakeholder/employee group will need and which communication channels will most effectively achieve this.
  • Effective, clear and regular communication
  • Supporting skills, specialist expertise, experience, tools and techniques to help deliver a positive outcome

Jim Whitworth (
Phil Searle (
Lisa Robinson (
Chazey Partners


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