In stead of following the next day program, we, table mates, decided to have a workshop on our own. What have we learned about our organizational change programs? If we look each other in the eye, what do we really recommend each other. The following is a summary of what has been said, we all hope it will help you in your endeavors (and never mind the author’s editing).

  • Take a (very very) long breath

As it comes to organizational change one can imagine some short term, more materialistic strategic goals but most of the time the main challenge is about changing the mindset and behavior of people. And this takes time. Certainly, in companies with a long and successful history, at least 3 but rather more than 5 years is a realistic timeframe to achieve fundamental changes in the way of working. Changing your own behavior is hard, changing another person is harder, let alone changing teams and whole companies. Unless there is an unavoidable, compelling reason (not to mention COVID), realistic expectation management for yourself and more important for your stakeholders can avoid a lot of disappointments, a drop out early or frequent changes in direction. Maybe the outside business world needs a faster pace, the human condition is still bound to its prehistoric roots.

  • Choose a limited number of strategic themes to work on and be consistent over time

In people management everything is important. The list of themes to meaningfully work on seems to be endless. And above that – if we consider HR as the driver of organizational change – this department is often confronted with and overextended by daily operational issues, social trends (today it’s all about wellbeing, new ways of working, diversity and inclusion, what’s next?), changes in leadership and short term changes in direction,  labor relations issues, and so on.  They all insist to get the full attention of the HR department and to rise on the priority list. In this regard, HR often looks more like a sequence of unrelated pop-up stores instead of a consistent brand (promise) in the main street. Unfortunately, the message is not that you can neglect these things – we’re still in the real world – but nevertheless, to always persistently stick to a chosen, limited number of themes whatever comes your way.

So, which are the 2 to 4 themes that will make the difference for your company and are worthwhile to work on for 5 years? Giving the long-term consequences, careful analysis and considerations are important, as is a broad consensus within the leadership of the company.

  • We are in the world of people not things

It is so obvious that it is almost absurd to spend a few words on it. But still, time and again one can observe that there is still often the implicit, persistent assumption present in management circles (despite tons of management books on the importance of emotions and irrational behavioral determinants) that people act rationally and logically (“as we do”). Cause A leads to effect B in a linear, logical way and within preset timeframes. Unfortunately, programs designed to change the way of working look at times quite messy. Sometimes nothing seems to work, sometimes there is an unexpected acceleration. Sometimes the critics seems unbridgeable, other times the enthusiasm is overwhelming. You can start the journey, you can be prepared as good as possible, but don’t think you’re in full control. Unexpected things will happen, you will have to deal with it but know that is ok. If you really want change, don’t polish the mirror, be honest to yourself and others and tackle the things you really see. Remember, we’re in the organic world, not the mechanical.

  • Trust is the beginning of everything

In all worlds where people need to relate and collaborate – and certainly in this VUCA-world -trust is the basic foundation to only get started. Not everything can be explained, things can go wrong, mistakes will be made, the future cannot be predicted, so we have to rely on the trust we have in our leadership and co-workers to go on and engage in changing what we do and how we do it. If this is an issue, start there.

  • Avoid ’Big Bang’-, ‘One size fits all’- and ‘One dimensional’- thinking

Corporate programs have the tendency to go for the big bang-approach, uniform for everyone and focused on one dimension of the problem/ solution: every leader must follow the leadership program, all co-workers follow the agile-workshop, let’s tackle the diversity problem with a workshop unconscious bias training for everyone.

It certainly is spectacular and has – in first instance – a great face validity and the feeling to have a plan and do something, but it rarely yields lasting results. The following will work better:

Adapt to the context

The Why, the What and the How should be relevant for the target group. Adapting and translating the program/ vocabulary/ examples/ methods to the context of the group is therefor mandatory. It demands more preparation but that in itself will give a lot of insights, and ultimately much better results.

Work with real teams

Work where possible with the whole group(s) that work together on a daily basis. When it comes to behavioral change the whole group(s) must change and change together. Sending individuals separate to behavioral change programs seldom does any good. Usually, one person cannot do this by her/himself, even if (s)he is the leader. If you want to change, change together.

Have a congruent multi-dimensional approach – system thinking

One intervention will not make the difference. One has to look at and work on all dimensions that are relevant in a collaboration context: developing the individual skills and knowledge of the individual is one thing, but this needs to be accompanied by working on group dynamics, operational processes, policies, leadership development, organization structures, performance management, compensation, recruiting new talent, meeting structures and culture, etc.….

The more dimensions you include and integrate the more impact this will have. For HR this means that once you have chosen for a limited number of strategic themes, all departments and functions contribute to them and work together in an integrated way.

Let viral change do the work

We all know it, the best advocates of change are the individuals and teams that pick up the challenge and start working on it. There (positive) experiences are vital in contaminating the larger group. If viral change is starting to happen than you know that the program works. If not, one should look for another approach. Therefore, although it is sometimes not possible, avoid Big Bang’s. Start with teams that are eager to learn and where the demand for change is high. They will learn you how to perfect the program and are far better ambassadors than you will ever be.

Don’t tell and explain, let them experience

Let people experience what the change means (senses, ratio & emotions), preferably live and with real cases but if not possible by telling personal stories of real cases (also when they were not successful). The closer to reality and own context, the more impact you will have.

  • And to end, never use the phrase ‘resistance to change’

It’s a popular phrase at the leadership table, but it really is like dead wood, nothing can come out of it. It’s not a beginning, it’s an end. It probably is the worst concept ever invented in the world of behavioral and organizational change.

Every time someone says this, it should be corrected with ‘sorry, we just didn’t do our job well’. Perhaps in explaining the Why, perhaps in making the What not concrete enough, perhaps in bad processing the How.  So, don’t mention it, go to work and ‘change’ your plans.

Much more can – and has been – said about organizational change, but if you follow (some of) these recommendations coming from practice, you will avoid the usual pitfalls, you will make real progress and you will be prouder of the things you have conducted.