Breaking down barriers in the infrastructure of large organizations

Wherever you look, you see organizations — from universities, healthcare providers, and large to medium-sized businesses — struggling to adapt to an ever-faster pace of change. In their quest to stay relevant, most organizations are hampered by bureaucratic management systems – with too many layers and too many rules – that frustrate pioneering innovation and proactive renewal.

As any CEO will tell you, changing an organization, especially a large one, is a hugely complex undertaking. Research by Bain & Company suggests that only 12% of transformation programs meet or exceed their goals – and most of these programs are incremental, not groundbreaking.

So, what hope do we have in transforming our organizations at their core—to flatten bloated hierarchies, turn back the tide of petty rules, and imbue the entire organization with the spirit of entrepreneurship? If the challenge of creating a resilient, self-renewing organization is daunting from the CEO’s perspective, consider the challenge for a frustrated employee, tied down by bureaucracy, three or four levels below. What can she do to untangle and simplify the mammoth network of intricate and interconnected processes that govern how you hire a team member, submit a budget request, change a salary, purchase a piece of equipment, adjust a product specification, handle a customer complaint, board a new supplier, or do something else just about?

That’s the question we asked Frances Westley, the JW McConnell Chair of Social Innovation at the Canadian University of Waterloo, and an expert on systems change. Frances has taught hundreds of activists how to tackle big, knotty problems, and her 2007 book, Go to Maybeis a tremendously practical guide for those eager to implement changes at the system level.

The first step is to give up the idea that you can script the change process from start to finish (a conceit of many CEOs). Frances says, “If you think, ‘I’m going to plan all my steps and just drive forward’, you hit a wall. Instead, you have to find leads and pressure all over the system, and then you have a better chance to trigger a cascade of change.”

Frances knows what it takes to be a successful system-level activist. Some of her key tips:

Find allies who understand the system better than you do, and who connect with senior leaders or policy makers. They are power multipliers. Look for areas of the system that are under pressure or underperforming, as the appetite for change can be greater there. Be positive. There’s little point in labeling yourself as subversive – that’s scary for most people. Instead, try to understand the fears and concerns of those you are trying to influence – look for areas where you can work with their core self-interest. Sow many seeds. Sharing many specific proposals with key decision-makers increases the likelihood that one of your ideas will sprout when changing circumstances create a hunger for new approaches. Be flexible and relentless. Frances says, “If you run into a wall, just go elsewhere. You have to be like water flowing around a rock.”

Closing out our conversation with Frances, we wonder what would happen if every company trained its employees to think like social innovators? How much progress could we make if everyone at work were equipped to take a proactive role in restructuring the sclerotic, highly politicized and stultifying systems that make our organizations less daring, adaptable and humane than they could and should be. ?

Perhaps rather than launching yet another “transformation program” the average company should commit to building an army of smart, gung-ho, catalysts of change.

Editor’s Note: This article is part of the video and editorial series The New Human Movement, which aims to highlight bold thinkers and doers who are reshaping work and leadership.

Gary Hamel is a business thinker, author and educator. He is a faculty member of the London Business School and Harvard Business Review Press’s bestselling book, Humanocracy: Creating Organizations as Amazing as the People Inside Them.

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