A Change Model for the 21st Century: How to Make Lasting Organizational Change

An in-depth look at what prevents change within organizations and why it's time for a new approach

Together, any change is possible: since our founding in 2014, this belief has driven our work with organizations in different industries, continents, and contexts. We’ve seen teams transform from disengaged, disbelieving skeptics to fully bought-in change champions. And now, for the first time, we’ve compiled a deep dive into:

  • Why skepticism is one of the biggest obstacles to initiating change, and how individuals—especially leaders—can make systemic changes to organizations
  • Why the assumptions underlying some of the most popular change models actually prevent change
  • Our approach to organizational changemaking, honed over the span of seven years and tried and tested with hundreds of teams
  • And finally, why there’s never been a better moment to start changing your organization.

Why Organizations Resist Change —And How to Rally Teams to Transform

Over the last seven years working with hundreds of teams, we’ve found the biggest obstacle to organizational transformation is the shared belief that change is impossible. Teams are often skeptical that change can happen because it takes a long time, results aren’t guaranteed, and—to be honest—venting about existing problems is easier than fixing them.

But for better and for worse, 2020 proved change was possible: organizations were forced to change, adapting to remote work, triaging supply chain dilemmas, responding to social issues, and more. The good news is that change doesn’t have to happen in reaction to extreme events. Organizations can choose, on their own terms, to work differently—and it starts with individual behavior change. To convince people their behavior matters, you need to address two key factors:

  • Self-efficacy is a person’s belief that they can succeed in a specific situation—that they have the ability, and perhaps more fundamentally, the option to do something different.
  • Outcome expectancy is what individuals expect to achieve. People need to believe different behaviors will lead to different outcomes and understand both the benefits of action and the cost of inaction—a trade-off often left out of organizational change narratives.

Simply by doing something different—by making little changes over what individuals do control—an organization can build momentum and social proof.

Why Existing Organizational Change Models Prevent Change from Happening

Kotter, PROSCI/ADKAR, Switch, Bridges, and other change consultancies have developed change models, each with its own value and strengths—but also consisting of assumptions that don’t reflect the true nature of organizational and cultural change. In fact, they can make change even harder to understand.

  • Assumption #1: Change is a singular moment in time. Most change models assume some kind of linear path, going from the beginning of the change initiative to the end, where it stops, and everything is better. 
  • Assumption #2: Change happens in closed systems. Most change models believe a change initiative can be constrained within some kind of boundary, where very little gets in, and almost nothing gets out.
  • Assumption #3: Change leadership is top-down. Change is led from the top and pushed to the bottom.
  • Assumption #4: Change is complicated, but can be simplified. Traditional models also assume that change is complicated, but if we communicate enough, we can influence the organization’s attitudes about that change so it becomes significantly more simple.
  • Assumption #5: The “right” change has been identified. Change models assume they have identified the right problem to solve before the change process begins.
  • Assumption #6: There’s a singular model that can be applied to all change initiatives. Traditional consultants—prefer a “one size fits all” model, regardless of the change that’s happening.

Read more about why these assumptions make change harder, as well as our biases; in Why Organizational Change Models Fail.

How to Actually Implement Change within Organizations

Over a span of five years, and in partnership with some of the world’s most famous organizations, we tried dozens of novel combinations of change processes, aiming for the following outcomes:

  • Rapid proof. could we produce early wins that serve as tangible evidence that change is, indeed, possible?
  • Minimal ongoing resistance. Could we confront, head-on, the feelings of loss (of control, time, competence, and so on) that folks naturally feel amid any significant change? 
  • Enduring impacts. Could our changes stick? would teams continue to embrace change and adaptation when uncertainty and pressure mounted against them?
  • Increased capacity for change in the future. Could we design a process that would ultimately work within organizations without our support in the long-term?

We found that the following mindsets and methods were essential to success:

  • Co-creation: Teams who designed their own change had greater motivation and resisted loss less.
  • A behavior-first approach: Creating a safe environment where teams can try new behaviors together works better to produce change than any comms plan or sizzle reel.
  • Different methods for different types of change: Some changes, like reorgs, mergers, and leadership transitions, companies need to get mostly right the first try. Other changes—new processes, tool implementations, cultural rituals—actually benefit from rapid iteration, and can be reversed without much cost or harm. Most enterprise-wide change programs (like a reorg or strategic pivot) involve both types of change, as well as a way to continually connect the dots between the two.
  • Change as competitive advantage: The most successful organizational changes are led by executive teams who see change as an ongoing competitive advantage, not just a one-time endeavor.

Putting these lessons together, we developed an approach to organizational change that we call “Change Making.”

Learn more about the four phases of Change Making.

Why Organizations Must Design for the Future, Now

Adopting a more effective approach to change management has never been more important because 2020 marks a clear dividing line between old and new ways of operating organizations. COVID is only the start. Leaders must also keep an eye on some of the fundamental changes that are occurring within the economy:

  • Power is shifting to workers. Short-term labor shortages, plus a shrinking labor pool in the long-term, means that managers who “came of age in an era of abundant workers” will have to adapt.
  • Technology is forcing organizations to reconsider how jobs are performed. Digital communication tools and automation allow teams to tackle work in new ways.
  • Organizations are being asked to solve bigger problems. Consumers increasingly expect companies to take a stand regarding social and environmental issues.

This is the time to think strategically about work, and design your organization for the future. Some of the most pressing issues include:

  • How do we redesign strategic planning for a more complex world?
  • How can we design hybrid work that doesn’t produce wildly divergent employee experiences?
  • How can we re-balance the responsibilities for establishing work-life balance?
  • How we can deploy talent development systems that act as a competitive advantage?

Read more about how change can be a competitive advantage in How Change Has Changed (And What to Do About It).

Want to learn more about kickstarting change within your own organization? Get in touch.

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A Change Model for the 21st Century: How to Make Lasting Organizational Change
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