Executive Education

From Square Pegs to Labelitis: Implementing Successful Organizational Change

To some extent, business climate has settled: Presidential elections are over, the Fed has started raising interest rates, businesses have stopped hibernating and look for growth.

As the head of organization, you may realize that the way your organization has run for the last several years either may not be good enough, or not be thinking widely enough to cope with this “new normal. “

It’s all too easy to start changing things, but not so easy to change them right. I’ll write today about the problems with organizational change, and how to avoid some of its major problems.

Not the right future, and not the right stakeholders

Once things have settled a bit, management often makes the assumption they know what will happen. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case. My suggestion is to think about the future as a variable place, and think about what scenarios might happen. Given this thinking, what your current stakeholders might be may have little to do with whom you need to make happy in the future.

Not making decisions up front

Many organizations need to design the architecture of their quality effort. If they do not, they risk pouring time and dollars into an effort that will eventually collapse. Among the decisions that should be made up-front, before implementing a quality effort are: the measures of success; the degree of employee involvement; the depth and breadth of implementation; and the techniques to be used. As someone once said, If you don’t know where you are going, you may not like getting there.”

Need-technique mismatch

A toothpick doesn’t work to well to knock down a wall, and a tank won’t mow your grass well.  The same situation happens when a leader reads a single book, attends a workshop or brainstorms one idea in the brief moments of quiet time. They may choose a incremental technique but do lots of it and expect big results, or make a single huge change and think it will fix everything forever.

 Organizations often use small-scale, incremental techniques such as Six Sigma, when instead they need to evaluate their reactions to future scenarios of a radically changed business climate. They may need to divest themselves of a money-losing division instead of pouring more money into an industry that is dying a slow death.

Not making systemic changes

Management must realize that to fully implement change, satisfy its customers, and promote teamwork in the entire organization, often wrenching systemic changes must be made: Profit sharing may be introduced; individual performance appraisals may be radically changed or eliminated; organizational structure may be realigned away from functions (production, quality, engineering) to a customer-, process- or geographic-based structure; information may be given to employees formerly reserved for senior management; and significantly more authority may be given to line employees.

If management does not align these systems, the effect will be like Dr. Doolittle’s “Pushme-Pullyou” animal (a horse with two heads, each pulling in the opposite direction). Each system (rewards, structure, information, etc.) is tugging the organization in a different direction. The result will be much struggle and confusion, but little success.

Overuse of small, focused teams

Some organizations treat process action teams (sometimes called quality improvement teams) like candy: They want dessert before having dinner.
I know of a 3000-person organization with over 70 current Agile teams working on a variety of issues. The organization avoids measuring their success, provides them little technical support, and still has not addressed “dinner” of the systemic changes needed to support them. This implementation strategy has a high risk of failure, and organizational change will probably not become an integral part of their culture.

This problem occurs when, paradoxically enough, an organization achieves successes with its first teams, or hears about wild successes of other companies. They then buy a canned training program, or hire a trainer to setup their programs. Much training occurs and many teams formed. With various degrees of management support, these teams attack a variety of problems. Unfortunately, because of unclear long-term plans, and the lack of system changes, (see next section) many of these teams fail. As a result, the organizational change effort may stagnate, and once ardent supporters become disillusioned.

In addition, management often delegates a problem to a team as a way of avoiding hard management or personnel decisions. For example, one manager in a software company assembled a teams because the customer complained of too many bugs in the product. In addition, the manager needed a reporting system to evaluate the progress of the bug fixes. The team quickly realized that this was not a “process” problem, but a personnel problem: One employee of the manager just wasn’t doing his job. The team knew this, and the manager knew it. Unfortunately, the manager was unwilling the confront the problem, and hoped the team would find away around it.

Caught between the square peg and NIH diseases

Many organizations buy canned implementation efforts that describe for them, step by step, what to do. This square peg approach is often not appropriate for the round hole of the organization. On the other hand, organizations can become infected with the not invented here (NIH) disease. They insist in reinventing the wheel when it isn’t necessary to do so. I know one consultant who made a lot of money because of this disease. The rivalry between two manufacturing plants belonging to the same company was so fierce that they refused to talk to or learn from each other. This is despite the fact that they were located only a few miles apart. The consultant made his money by helping one plan with organizational change, and then driving to the other plant to do the same thing. The secret to secret to is not to choose between one disease and the other, but to decide what aspects of implementation can be bought, and what aspects need unique solutions agreed upon by management and employees.

Mass, or unstructured training

 If you wish employees to use their training, organizations must train them in skills specific to their needs just in time to use them. Too many organizations have spent untold thousands of dollars and hours on training employees on concepts they may never need. If they do need these concepts, they will need refresher courses because their training was long ago. Because mass training puts such a burden on organizational resources, not all members of work teams are trained at once. As a result, some know what to do but others do not, which causes more confusion. In addition, many organizations rely on the assumption that free training is out there somewhere, and figure that employees can learn everything they need a through the Khan Academy.

The no top management support excuse

Supervisors and line employees have often complained that they do not receive management support for their efforts. I believe all parties are at fault for this problem. Management may not fully realize what they specifically need to do to support employees 1) work on problems that don’t interest management or 2) don’t get the proper authority and specific support from management before they start their efforts. This no management support is caused by unclear or unknown expectations.


Much the same thing has happened in Latin America with the word reengineering.  The word has been misapplied so much that any mention of it is returned by a look of disgust. To properly implement organizational change, organizations must look beyond the label, and ask serious questions about what changes are needed and what they should do about them.

Not measuring results

Some of us who have fun with statistics (and some of us who don’t) are asked to determine if a training program or other intervention was “worth it.” This question has two aspects 1) What you will measure?; and 2) How do you know what you did had an effect? This second, most-difficult-to-answer question will be the focus of another article. 

What you will measure can be described along two dimensions: 1) the subjective(affective)-objective dimension and 2) the when we measure (immediately or sometime later). As the accompanying graphic shows, asking participants if they like a seminar at the end of a session is a subjective immediate measure of success. Testing them on the knowledge they learned is an objective immediate measure of success. Asking participants months after completing the seminar if they thought the training was useful is a subjective delayed measure. Determining increases in job performance is an objective delayed measure.

No one measure of success is better than another, but all too often organizations use only immediate, subjective measures of success. Their sole evaluation of a training program is asking participants whether they like the course, instructor and meeting facilities. This is useful information, because management can take immediate steps to correct confusion in course materials, engage a more entertaining speaker, or make the room warmer. However, these measures are not a substitute for gathering hard, factual data on whether participants retained the skills they learned, or whether they use the skills on the job to improve their performance.

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Dr. David Chaudron
Dr. David Chaudron has over 30 years experience and is managing partner of Organized Change Consultancy. National and international clients include those in manufacturing, banking, finance, petrochemicals, electronics and aerospace in the United States, France, Germany, Portugal, Brazil, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. He holds doctorate and masters degrees in Industrial/Organizational Psychology.