Should change be “easy”? (Because it’s usually not!)

Leanne Buehler, Ph.D., Principal Science and Innovation AdvisorEmployee Engagement, LeadershipLeave a Comment

I’ve recently been a part of an ongoing debate about the nature of change. At the core of this conversation is the question: should change within our organization be easy? While very few would disagree that successful organizations need to be adaptable and nimble to stay competitive, ideas around what and how change should occur vary greatly. Acknowledging that change is inherently difficult, how should organizations determine if they are managing change well and moving at an appropriate pace?

This topic has come up as we’ve worked with organizations to design questions for their culture and employee engagement surveys. From a strategic perspective, nearly every organization is focused on the need to innovate, adapt to change, and continuously improve. As a result, employees need to be open-minded and flexible and to always be looking for new and better ways of doing things.

Historically, Newmeasures has addressed this topic on engagement surveys by asking if new ideas were encouraged in the work environment. What we’ve come to learn is that asking employees for ideas is only half the battle; ideas also need to be considered and in some cases, acted upon.
Of course, there are many constraints that contribute to acting on new ideas – there can be politics, loyalty to “how we’ve always done things”, bureaucracy, regulations, etc. And certainly there are many good reasons why mechanisms are in place that prevent change: efficiency, compliance, tracking, scale, etc. Not everything should be should be easy to change. However, Newmeasures data suggests that employees are frustrated with red tape that prevents them from being able to bring new ideas to life. As a result, we have started including the question, “The way we do things is flexible and easy to change” on many engagement surveys. And while this question raises controversy (since when is change easy?!), we have found that the conversations and debate it sparks to be invaluable.

Every organization is faced with the paradox of flexibility. On one hand, organizations must evolve and innovate to respond to a changing competitive environment. On the other hand, too much change too quickly leads to chaos and uncertainty. Rules and routines help cut through the chaos and can lead to organizational efficiency that drives scalability and profitability. The danger of rules and regulations is that the organization can become too rigid and slow to respond and eventually become irrelevant.
So how does an organization determine if their approach to change is “right?” Henk Volberda (1992) offers a model for organizational adaptability/flexibility that asks some insightful questions. In this model he suggests that an organization’s approach to change should be based on the industry and environment within which the organization operates. Organizations that operate in stable and predictable environments can take more time to carefully and deliberately respond to change. Organizations that operate in environments that are unpredictable and change rapidly need to be more flexible and quick to implement change.

One approach for understanding if your organization is moving at the right pace of change is to ask your employees. For example, ask your team to think about a major project or initiative they are working on and consider:

-What challenges get in your way of accomplishing this goal?
-If we could change one thing that would ma​ke it easier to get your work done, what would it be and why?
-Are there things (within our control) that we need to respond to faster? Are we moving too fast?

Asking such questions can build awareness about what things need to have routine and consistency versus what are the things that prevent us from being as responsive and innovative as we’d like to be.

What guidelines help you determine how quickly to implement change?

Volberda, H. (1992). Organizational Flexibility: Change and Preservation​. Wolters-Noordhoff​, Netherlands. ISBN 9001 91540 X